By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneApril 2, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Good health and a strong family gene pool have blessed Roger Chassay with an athletic body that has taken him all the way to the Olympics.
The Senior Olympic Games, that is. Chassay, 71, has been a regular on the local, state and national scene of senior track and field events since he dedicated himself to becoming an athlete just over 15 years ago.
To his credit, this Air Force veteran and retired 38-year NASA engineer has on display some 500 medals that he has won at senior athletic competitions in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and Louisiana. Crowning his accomplishments, are four bronze medals and a gold medal won at the national U.S. Senior Games. He also has a silver medal won at a national masters track and field event.
Chassay's gold medal, won last summer in the 70-to-74 age bracket for the triathlon at the Senior Games in the San Francisco area, is his last medal. Though he still runs, bikes and swims, Chassay has retired from competitive athletics.
"I had an engineering career. I had a management career. Then, I had this athletic career," he said. "This had gotten to be a job. It takes nine months of intensive training to train for a medal.
I was like a professional athlete whose most important thing to do every day was exercise. So I got burned out.
"I'm still running, swimming and cycling. But I'm not at the competitive level anymore."
Chassay's athletic career came out of what some might think of as his midlife crisis. Even though it was a product of his age, Chassay said the real reason behind his interest in athletics was his quiet fear of spending his later years overweight and confined to a wheelchair. At 55, he decided it was time to sculpt his 160-pound frame into a body with a lower percentage of body fat and a
higher percentage of muscle.
"I had six children that were all raised. I was burned out of taking care of homes and all that goes with them," he said. "I've been blessed with great health my whole life. I knew that when I retired I would need to have some hobbies. So, I decided I wanted to find out if a man could become an athlete at the age of 55."
Chassay did just that, and rediscovered his love for competing in sports.
"I've loved sports my whole life," he said. "I played one year of high school basketball. I was the worst person on the team. I didn't letter. I was crushed.
"But I moved on. Many years later, I played on some of the softball and basketball teams at NASA. I was always good enough to be on the first teams. But I was never the star, just one of the players."
In the 1990s, Chassay, whose younger years were consumed by the scientific demands of the space program, was in a management position at Marshall Space Flight Center that was less stressful and time consuming, and there were less travel requirements. On the home front, his children had grown up and he had gotten divorced. Chassay found himself with extra time to explore some old interests.
"A bunch of my running friends said I was built like a runner. But I didn't like running," he said. "So, I thought I would try a triathlon (a race that combines running, biking and swimming). I borrowed a bike from one of my sons. As soon as I got on that bike, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. It was fast and there was a lot of cool air. You could even take your water bottle with you."
It wasn't long before Chassay began thinking about competing in a triathlon. He began with local and state competitions in 1994, including the Alabama Senior Olympics.
"It was pretty exciting. My legs cramped up. But I kept going and I finished and had a party afterwards," Chassay said of his run. "It was a lot of fun."
And he qualified for the 1995 Senior Olympics in San Antonio, Texas, in two events - the triathlon and 5K (3.1 mile) run - even though he wasn't quite prepared for the intensity of the competition at that level.
"Everyone had these real expensive bicycles," he recalled of the triathlon. "I had a used bike I bought for $800. I was competing against athletes on $3,000 to $5,000 bikes. I finished sixth in a field of 10 in my age bracket. But I got the bug."
In the 5K run, Chassay placed 26th out of 50 racers.
Those placements encouraged Chassay. So, too, did the entire Senior Olympic experience. He left San Antonio with not only the determination to continue with triathlons and running races, but also with a new sport that he wanted to experience for himself.
"I saw pole vaulting. I thought 'Those guys don't look any faster or stronger than me,'" Chassay said. "I came home and took up pole vaulting with a friend. We made our first pole from a chain-link fence with a tennis ball on one end. We started practicing with that and finally bought a pole."
At first, as Chassay was vaulting 5, 6, 7 feet, his friends teased him for his attempts. But at 7 and 8 feet the teasing stopped.
"I got to 9 feet and then decided to pole vault at the Senior Olympics along with the triathlon," he said. "That year, the triathlon was in the morning and pole vaulting in the afternoon. I was so tired from the triathlon that I hit the bar on the pole vault on all three of my attempts. I was recorded with 'no height.' For a pole vaulter, that is awful. But I got a lot of exposure and it was exciting."
And it was enough to encourage Chassay to try again.
"I came home and got a coach and a better pole. I ended up winning a bronze medal in my age bracket in 1999," he said. "There were 15 in the finals. I was the only newcomer. Everyone else had competed in high school or college. No one knew me. I was so excited about winning that I wore my bronze medal around my neck the whole night."
Chassay's medal cache includes three pole vaulting bronze medals won at the Senior Olympics in 1999, 2000 and 2001; a bronze medal in the triathlon won at the Senior Olympics in 2005; a silver medal in pole vaulting in 2000 at the U.S. Masters Track and Field Championship Competition held in Boston; and his most recent and last win - the gold medal in the triathlon at the Senior Olympics last August.
During his competitive years, Chassay qualified and competed in multiple events at sports festivals in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky. He considers javelin, shot put and discus throw as his minor Olympic sports with pole vaulting, the triathlon, running and swimming as his main Olympic sports.
"Each triathlon athlete has a weakness. They never have the same skills in all three - running, swimming and biking," Chassay said. "For me, my swimming is slow but strong. I run moderately well. But my special gift is cycling. And that turns out to be perfect because the largest fraction of the race is on the bicycle."
At state events, Chassay entered as many competitions as he could, with most of them being short running and swimming races.
"I'm a good sprinter," he said. "I could do short races or six to eight swimming races in a two- to three-hour period because they are so short that you can recover from them fairly quickly and then go on to another race."
During the 1997 U.S. Senior Olympics, Chassay learned that more is not always necessarily better for an athlete. At the Alabama Olympics 1996, he had won 16 medals, qualifying for all 16 events at the Senior Olympics. He went on to compete in nine national events with disappointing results.
"I learned that entering too many national events was too challenging for me," Chassay said. "I didn't do well in any of the nine national events I competed in. Plus, most of the national class athletes only compete in their specialty events.
"So, for the 1999 U.S. Senior Olympics at Disneyworld, Fla., I entered only my two best events of the 18 I qualified for. Those were the pole vault and the triathlon. That year, I finished third and sixth places consecutively in those events."
In 2009, Chassay overcame several challenges to compete and win his crowning achievement - his gold medal at the Senior Olympics in the triathlon.
"Last year, I was running five miles faster than I am now. I was sprinting. I had five months of therapy on my legs and lower back. I had two months of therapy on my shoulder," he said. "Earning a gold medal is not expected to be easy and at the Senior Olympics you are competing against some very tough old guys. It doesn't matter if there are five or 20 guys in your age bracket. The ones that show up are the tough ones."
Although no longer competing, Chassay stays active, running 10 miles a week, biking anywhere from 30 to 150 miles a week and swimming one-half to one mile a few times a week.
"The nice thing is I don't have to run fast," Chassay said. "I'm addicted to being fit. This is about conditioning and staying fit."
Chassay retired from NASA about five years ago, but continues to work part time for NASA contractors. He is active in the Huntsville Track Club and the Spring City Cycling Club. He is president of the Huntsville Ski Club and volunteers at the University of Alabama-Huntsville Fitness Center. He has hiked and rafted in the Grand Canyon, has taken a bike tour of Central France, and manages to find time to play the clarinet with the Twickenham Winds and the Huntsville Concert Band.
"I sort of live like a college sophomore," said Chassay, whose apartment is near the UAH campus. "I take classes, although not for credit. I swim at the fitness center. I volunteer and I just have a great time."
Yet, unlike most college sophomores, Chassay also enjoys spending time with his six grown children and 14 grandchildren.
"Even though I haven't been competitive for seven months, I still want to be fit," said Chassay, who also takes alternative medicine to ward off a recurrence of prostate cancer.
"I want to be able to walk and be mobile for many years. I don't want to live 20 years in a wheelchair. I've studied how to keep joints, ligaments and muscles healthy. I have a diet, stretching and exercise regimen that is not intensive but that I do need to keep up so that I can keep my body robust. We are built like cavemen. If we don't use it, if we don't work it, we lose it. But I do want to simplify my life more. I want to relax and enjoy things more."