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90-year-old Seminole woman prepares for second triathlon

TREASURE ISLAND — They call Saturday's minitriathlon in St. Petersburg the Meek & Mighty, a betrothal of adjectives befitting the event's oldest competitor.

Ruth Gordon's wavy white hair, soft blue nonagenarian eyes and fragile voice laced with a Connecticut accent suggest the former. But her ageless, adventurous spirit — corroborated by three marriages and visits to five continents — betrays the latter.

"I always think it's the Viking blood in her; the Scandinavian heritage," says her daughter, Barbara Towey.

Then again, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Viking poised to swim 200 yards, bike 5.4 miles and speed-walk a mile in their 10th decade. Saturday morning, Mrs. Gordon will attempt just that.

With her two surviving children and at least four grandkids rooting her on, she'll splash into the North Shore Pool for the Meek & Mighty — the precursor to Sunday's St. Anthony's Triathlon — two months after her 90th birthday, 20 years after the death of husband No. 3 and five years after completing the only other triathlon she has entered.

Kobe Bouromphongsa, public relations coordinator for St. Anthony's Health Care, confirms that of the 750 Meek & Mighty entrants, Mrs. Gordon is the oldest.

"I just want to finish," Mrs. Gordon said.

Take that humble objective with a grain of Metamucil. After all, this is a woman who once outlasted a typhoon while sailing on a freighter in the South China Sea.

"She's a rock star," Towey says.

A mother of three, grandmother of five and great-grandmother of five, Mrs. Gordon had no athletic background or proficiency when she entered the Meek & Mighty in 2003.

An avid traveler, accomplished oil painter and one-time licensed practical nurse in New York, she didn't participate in sports while growing up in Connecticut and took up the challenge of an endurance race only at the encouragement of Towey, 66.

"I knew she could do it because she can swim and she can walk," said Towey, who took up triathlons roughly a dozen years ago in part to honor an adoptive daughter who was killed in a car accident at age 21.

"The only trouble was the bike riding. And I thought, 'Oh well, they always say you never forget.' Well … "

At this, Towey unleashes a guffaw.

"She never learned."

"Maybe when I was a kid I did a three-wheeler or something," Mrs. Gordon said. "But through the years, I never rode a bike."

Though some minor bruises preceded balance, Mrs. Gordon eventually became adept enough to complete the bike segment of the triathlon and finish the '03 event in 1 hour, 20 minutes. For all practical intents, she assumed, her Meek & Mighty debut also would be her swan song.

"They kept asking me, 'When are you going to do it again?' " recalled Mrs. Gordon, who has an essentially clean medical history. "I very laughingly said, 'Oh, when I'm 90.' I really didn't mean it."

A half-decade later, destiny has called her bluff. Mrs. Gordon, who attributes her longevity in part to good genes (her mother lived until her late 80s) and a diet bereft of sweets, lately has been biking with Towey up to 51/2 miles a day and swimming three days a week at the Seminole retirement community at which she resides.

Her only apparent concessions to her age: She'll speed-walk the mile run and use a bike tweaked to provide more stability. Among the modifications on her white Biria bicycle are thicker tires and the absence of a crossbar, allowing her to easily swing her leg over the frame.

"I was (frightened) in the beginning when I thought, 'Am I going to do this?' " Mrs. Gordon said.

"But no, I'm not scared."

Just a sucker for an adventure.

"She's got a lot of courage to do this because … as you get older your balance goes. So it's pretty awesome that she's doing this well," Towey said. "She's doing great."

Joey Knight can be reached at (813) 226-3350 or jknight@sptimes.com.

90-year-old Seminole woman prepares for second triathlon 04/24/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 27, 2008 12:01pm]
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