They play with broken fingers, black eyes and bruises. They're scrappy, they're intimidating – and yes, they're grandmas.
Fierce, national championship-winning grandmas, who storm the basketball court with "swagger" and are the first to tell you they've got plenty of it.
"We play to win," says Mavis Albin, 76, captain of the Celadrin Tigerettes basketball team in Louisiana. "We don't leave anything on the court. We're ordinary grandmothers, just doing extra-ordinary things."
Their rivals surely agree. Later this month, Albin and her team will chase an eighth gold medal at the National Senior Games in Cleveland, Ohio. Every two years, about 300,000 athletes ages 50 and older compete in the Olympics-esque tournament and qualifying events. Albin has been participating for 21 years, and her current team has been together for 16. Their record hovers around 200 wins and 5 losses.
The Tigerettes' success is highlighted in "Age of Champions," a new documentary that premiers on PBS Tuesday night. Producer Keith Ochwat and director Christopher Rufo, who were in their mid-20s when filming began a few years ago, were taken aback by the high level of competition. "It sort of shattered our perspective of aging," Ochwat says. "We spent some time with the Tigerettes and just fell in love with them. They play like they're in their 20s – boxing out, diving for balls – and it's an amazing thing."
Throughout filming, Ochwat kept an eye on the senior athletes' habits, from how they ate to their sleeping patterns. But he quickly realized the secret to their longevity – from Albin to a 100-year-old tennis champ – didn't revolve around a special diet or medley of vitamins. Rather, "they all had amazing support networks," he says. "And they also had goals. One player told me that when she wakes up each morning, she thinks about how she can get better at basketball, how she can get healthier and fitter to perform well for her team. Often you see seniors who look at their life behind them, but Mavis' life is very much in front of her. And that's important."
Albin shared more about aging – and playing a tough game of ball – with U.S. News. Her responses have been edited.
Why basketball and not a different sport?
I went to a small country high school, and that was the only sport offered. I love women's basketball. But there were no other opportunities for us to play once we graduated high school, because there were no college teams, no pro teams. So that ended our basketball career. When I read about the Senior Olympics, I just became as excited as a 16 year old. I said, I can play basketball again!
[Read: The Best Foods for Longevity.]
Your team has been together a long time. What's your secret to staying together?
When we go to tournaments, we see that so many of these teams have different players every time. But that's not the case with us. We're almost like family, we're so close. We're all very positive people, and we love to encourage each other rather than being negative. We encourage each other to keep our bodies up, eat sensibly and stay in the gym, and I think it rubs off on each one of us. In fact, one of my teammates said this team has made her a better person. And I can honestly say it has changed my life remarkably. It's been quite an adventure.
Do any of the Tigerettes have restrictions due to age or health?
No, indeed. We don't put a lot of emphasis on a hurt finger, or a bad ankle or a bad knee. When we get on the court, we forget all about our aches and pains. We wrap our fingers, we pad our feet and we brace our knees – and we'd never think about doing that for spring cleaning, but we will for basketball.
How do the other teams feel about you, since you're so successful?
Oh, everybody cheers against us. They do – because they all want to beat us. We have a target on our back, and everybody's out to get the Tigerettes. But that's OK, because that's what I would do if I were playing against a team that had a winning record. I would want to beat them, of course.