Russ Hughes, a 59-year-old retired Redwood City police officer, is not just the director of the Pacific Hockey Association adult hockey league. He's a player, too. Occasionally, he runs into someone who has trouble reconciling his age with his avocation.
"More often than not, it ends up being a conversation starter," Hughes said recently after his team's game at Ice Center Cupertino. "It's really addictive. I wish I had done this all my life."
That he's doing it at this point in his life runs counter to conventional wisdom and societal expectation. But Hughes is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Bay Area athletes 50 and older who stay in shape in ways you might not expect, competing in events currently being contested at the 22nd Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
In so doing, they confront the artistic and aerobic demands of ice dancing, the shoulder-to-shoulder, slam-bang tumult of ice hockey and the lung-bursting demands of speedskating in which competitors don layers of safety equipment to protect themselves from the razor-sharp blades on which they race.
Compared to other Pacific Hockey Association competitors, Hughes is a pup. Take the Warriors, a team Hughes calls "old man city." A charter member of the association -- established in 1982 -- the Warriors commissioned new uniforms a few years ago. A word was added to the front of the jersey; they are now the Old Warriors. It isn't false advertising.
Steve Schaiman, 67, a defense lawyer from San Carlos, played pickup hockey as a kid on Long Island. He picked up the sport again as an adult.
"I've never thought for one minute about giving it up," he says. "And here it is, 10 o'clock at night with a workday tomorrow, and I'm here playing."
The Pacific Hockey Association is not a full-checking league. But there are collisions. Players hit the ice. Slap shots can leave a welt. Schaiman says that over the years, he has pulled leg muscles, tweaked ligaments and suffered a broken wrist. It's a small price to pay, he says, for the fun and friendship he experiences.
"It's fabulous exercise, even as slow as I am," he says, laughing. "I sweat, and we come up to the locker room afterward, drink a beer or two, talk about how good we used to be, and everything is good again."
Warrior Patrick Weiher, 64, a mechanical engineer from Los Altos, says the camaraderie is what keeps him coming back, "because it sure isn't my level of play."
Weiher's son skates for the team. His daughter was the team's goaltender before taking pregnancy leave.
"There are guys my age who can't walk," he says. "I can play, so I'm not going to quit -- maybe after a few more years. But I don't think I can wait for my grandson to play with us."
Music on the ice
Ice dancer Mike Ricigliano can tell when he's spent too much time away from the rink.
"I've gained a few pounds, and I'm trying to get back in shape," he says after a recent Sunday morning two-hour practice at Sharks Ice in San Jose. "Ice skating takes a lot of endurance. I feel like I'm dying."
Ricigliano, a software engineer for Oracle, is 52.
"But it's great exercise," he says, beads of perspiration trickling down his forehead. "And you've got to do something, right?"
Ricigliano and skating partner Julie Keith, who turns 50 in March, have won seven Adult Nationals ice dancing championships. As in the Olympics, the goal is to create the illusion of effortlessness on the ice while your muscles are screaming for oxygen.
"The ice dancing patterns that we do, like for a tango or whatever, when you pass a test, they want you to do two patterns," says Keith, a real estate agent who lives in San Francisco. "That's like running a mile. It takes so much energy."
Mary Panyan, of Los Gatos, admits only to being "older than Christie Brinkley." A teacher at De Anza Community College, Panyan skated as a youngster, quit, and took it up again when her kids were old enough to skate.
"They've retired," she says of her children. "I'm skating still."
Panyan likes that skating provides both fitness and social benefits -- she met her husband through ice dancing, and together they organize the Bay Area Ice Dancers social weekend every October. She says she occasionally gets a look of surprise from people when she tells them what she does with her leisure time.
"I do," she says. "But it's my best way of getting exercise, probably because I skated as a youngster."
Like Ricigliano, Panyan not only skates competitively, but she officiates at competitions for U.S. Figure Skating, the sport's national governing body. Both find skating more enjoyable during Winter Olympic years. Ricigliano even traveled to Boston in January to watch the U.S. Olympic ice dancing trials.
"To watch the level of skating that close and appreciate all the fine things they do, oh my," he said. "It's fun to watch. It's a passion."
The need for speed
Hayward's Mary Wong, 55, skates for speed, not artistry. Head coach of the Northern California Speedskating Association, Wong grew up in Fremont.
"Going to the rink was just a fun thing to do," she says. "I had some figure skates, but I couldn't turn worth anything. Just going fast seemed like it would be a fun thing."
Fun, in this case, is no casual pursuit. Before any Northern California Speedskating Association members hit the ice, they line the inside of the rink walls with thick padding. Then they protect themselves as best they can.
"We have these really sharp things on our feet," says Wong, 55, laughing. "So we're wearing neck protectors. We've got helmets on our heads. We've got full body coverage. This (ankle band) is because there's a chance that you could cut yourself. I put on my protective eye gear."
And even with all that:
"Yes," Wong says, "I've been to the hospital and had stitches."
Speedskaters compete according to age group.
"It's exactly like you'd see in the Olympics," Wong says, "but just not necessarily Olympic-caliber skaters."
Perhaps not, but the association's John Diemont, 65, holds five national age group short track speedskating records. The club's oldest member is 70.
Wong and her husband traveled to Salt Lake City to watch the U.S. Olympic trials.
"We can appreciate what they're doing, because we do it," she says. "There are approximately 2,000 registered speedskaters in the United States. We have people come in, try the sport, decide they like it, start going to events, and because they're speedskaters they're able to walk up and talk to Olympians because it's a tiny little group. It's just a neat thing."
The moral of the story? There's a difference between chronological age and ice age.
"Fifty doesn't have to be the end of things," says ice dancer Keith.
Her partner, Ricigliano, agrees.
"I don't feel like my age, that's for sure."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.
Galen Carter Spencer (U.S. archer; 1904 Summer Olympics)
Won gold in team competition. Born Sept. 19, 1840 and competed on Sept. 19, 1904, his 64th birthday.
Lida Peyton "Eliza" Pollock (U.S. archer, 1904 Summer Olympics)
Won bronze in Women's Double Columbia and National Rounds and gold in women's Team Rounds. Was 63 years and 333 days when she won the gold.
Dara Torres (Swimmer; 2008 Olympics)
Swimmer. Won three silver medals at age 41 in 2008 Olympics. She finished fourth (only top two advance to Olympics) at 2012 Olympic Trials in 50 free.
Elizabeth "Libby" Callahan (Pistol shooting; 2008 Olympics)
At age 56 competed in pistol shooting at the 2008 Games. Four-time Olympian.
Karen Lende O'Connor (Equestrian; 1996, 2000, 2012 Olympics)
Five-time Olympian. Was 54 at 2012 Olympics. Won team silver in 1996 and team bronze in 2000.
Scott Baird (U.S. Curling; 2006 Olympics)
Baird was 54 at the 2006 Games. He was an alternate on Pete Fenson's U.S. team so he never actually threw a stone but still shared in the bronze medal.
Anne Abernathy (Luge; 2006 Olympics)
Affectionately known as "Grandma Luge," the U.S. Virgin Islands native has competed in six Winter Olympics, the last one in 2006 at age 53. She was born April 12, 1953. She's currently training for the 2016 Summer Olympics as an archer.
Joseph Savage (Figure skating; 1932, 1936 Olympics)
Savage was 52 years and 267 days old when he competed in 1932. He won the first-ever ice dancing national title in 1936 with partner Marjorie Parker Smith. He continued competing -- and winning -- at the national level until age 63.
U.S. Olympic Committee