I first noticed Bernie, a spry gentleman who was doing various drills across the 55 and over gym floor where I work. It was instantly obvious that he was in excellent shape and his abilities were those of an athlete with a much higher level of fitness than the average person. His movements displayed youth and as soon as I saw his shirt, it all became clear.
One day after wrapping up a session with a client, I noticed Bernie sitting at the leg press machine, resting between sets. I stopped to formally introduce myself and to ask him his name. I’d briefly chatted with him several months earlier, but because I was working with a client at the time, our short conversation amounted to little more than casual pleasantries. During that brief encounter he had pointed to his shirt to help explain why he was doing those fast-paced explosive drills. Now that I wasn’t working with a client, I had time to learn more.
As we ended our conversation, I told him about my blog and my “Spotlight on Local Athletes” segment and asked if he would be interested in doing an interview. I gave him my card and told him to get in touch with me after he’d had time to think it over. I got my first email from him later that evening and have since learned so much about this very interesting man.
Thank you, Bernie, for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly. As you read through Bernie’s answers, I’m sure you will be amazed at the historical events he’s lived through and will understand how these events have shaped who he is today. He’s lived quite the life, and I’m better for having met him.
Without further ado, here’s my interview with Bernie Stamm.
Growing up in Switzerland
Deb – You grew up in northern Switzerland. What was that like? What opportunities did you have? What languages do you speak? Tell me about your first introduction to American soldiers at the young age of six and how that came about.
Bernie – The small town of 2,500 in Switzerland where I grew up is located 5 miles north of the river Rhine and borders Germany on the north. This made the town very vulnerable to a potential invasion by Hitler’s armies during World War II. The practically indefensible location is the reason why the strategic defense line between Switzerland and Germany was the Rhine leaving the town feeling somewhat “abandoned.” Unfortunately, the Allied Forces likewise did not consider anything north of the Rhine part of Switzerland. This led to the accidental bombing of my home town by eleven B-26 Marauder Bombers of the 320th US Bomb Group flying out of Dijon, France on Christmas Day 1944. I still remember that day. My older brother (8) and my younger sister (4) were on the way to see our grandparents when the bombing started. Experiencing the bombing first hand left indelible memories.
Shortly after the war’s conclusion three US airmen dropped by my parents’ restaurant, the “Gemeindehaus”, thinking this was the town hall. Their assignment was to take a first assessment of the damage that was done. My parents called the mayor knowing that he spoke English while they offered the young and handsome soldiers lunch. We children were showered by the American soldiers with rations and foodstuff such as marshmallows, which we had never seen before.
It turned out that our Mayor and his wife knew English from an extensive pre-war stay in Detroit where the mayor’s wife was the nanny for Henry Ford II. The mayor’s wife often babysat us when there was a major event at our restaurant. She gave us our first glimpses at life in the USA. It was in this time period that the early foundation of my later decision to come to the US was laid. Another memorable event that further piqued my curiosity in the US was the visit of Othmar Ammann, the brother of my former pastor and later a Latin teacher in the late fifties. Mr. Ammann, a civil engineer, had emigrated to the USA in 1904. He lived in New York City where he designed the Verrazzano Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel. What absolutely floored us kids about Mr. Ammann’s arrival in my home town was that he had shipped his own car, a huge black Lincoln, to Switzerland so he could travel conveniently. Wow! Those Americans. They do think big!
As for languages, I had seven years of Latin. I speak Swiss German, High German, French, and some Italian.
Deb – What sports did you participate in as a child living in Switzerland? Were you competitive or did you consider sports just a fun activity?
Bernie – The Swiss, traditionally being very health conscious, exercise a lot. We had gym classes starting at 5th grade including soccer, gymnastics, swimming, and track and field. These activities were mostly fun. However, track and field appealed to me the most and I became very competitive in my teens. I also took up skiing at age six and competed until my late teens.
Deb – Were your parents athletes, or did another close relative or friend get you interested in sports?
Bernie – My dad told me that he and his brothers were very active in gymnastics in their youth. As for my mom, in those days a young woman’s place was more or less limited to getting ready to become a wife and a mother. My dad owned a landscaping business, which, in those days, involved a lot of hard labor. There simply was no time and energy left for sports. But he was always proud of his successes as a social bowler. My interest in track and field, particularly the high jump and the long jump started in earnest when I entered what is the equivalent of high school in the US.
Deb – Were either javelin throwing or high jumping sports you participated in while in Switzerland?
Bernie – Javelin throwing, high jump and long jump were my best disciplines in high school. Doing what was known as the western roll (seen above), I cleared 6 feet at my peak. My best-ever long jump was 22 feet.
Moving to America
Deb – What circumstances fell into play that brought you to the United States and how old were you at the time? What was your reaction to America when you arrived? Did the country meet your childhood expectations?
Bernie – My earliest interest in the US was formed at the end of World War II. My interest continued to increase by visits from older maternal 3rd generation immigrant relatives living in Northern Ohio, by my almost obsessive listening to the American Forces Network short wave broadcasting from Tangiers in my teens, and by my older brother’s accepting a scholarship at the University of Kansas in 1961. These events solidified my curiosity to see for myself what it was all about with this fascinating country. But what made my desire finally become a reality was a scholarship offered by The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio to pursue a Masters Degree in City & Regional Planning.
I arrived in the New York City harbor on August 16, 1966 at age 27 on what, in retrospect, feels like the last boat, a small converted troop transport ship. The passengers were exclusively young European students like myself who had scholarship offers from various universities in the US and professors who were visiting the US for teaching assignments. The journey was under the sponsorship of the International Institute of Education. I vividly recall their guiding motto for our stay in the US: “Expect the Unexpected.” As it turned out, this motto helped me deal with quite a few funny and unfortunately, some unpleasant situations.
As for the USA meeting my childhood expectations, the answer is a qualified yes. Experiencing the country’s enormous size, its varied natural beauty, its apparent wealth, its peoples’ casual ways, and the ethnic and racial diversity left me in awe. On the other hand, spending the first three weeks with a host family in Cleveland Heights, Ohio also reminded me of the unresolved darker side of the country. The smoke of burned down homes and businesses in the Hough Area, in what became known as the Hough Riots, was still lingering when I arrived in Cleveland. As a naturalized American Citizen since 1974, I am ashamed that 54 years later we still have not been able to overcome our racial tensions.
Deb – Once in the United States, what sports attracted your attention?
Bernie – One day I was invited by some fellow graduate students to play basketball. Was I in for a surprise! They had the ball bounce off a glass board to score, which I had never seen before. They teased me mercilessly about the way I dribbled and how I released the ball. However, I was able to compensate and get even by running circles around all of them. This prompted them to call me “Roadrunner”. What’s a roadrunner? Well, expect the unexpected, indeed.
Since I saw no opportunity in further pursuing track and field, I took up tennis. And, of course, studying at The Ohio State University made me an instant Buckeye fan, in spite of the fact that when watching football games initially on TV, I often missed where the ball was going. As for baseball, I finally concluded that you can only appreciate the game if you grew up with it. To this day when I attend my 9 year old grandson’s peewee league, I still get lost.
Since this is a Running Blog, I Have to Ask…
Deb – Were you ever a runner? If so, what distances did you run and why did you stop?
Bernie – When I competed at the high school level in the sprints, I found out quickly that I was out of the starting blocks faster than most anybody else. This served me well in the long jump, in the high jump, and in the javelin throw where a short and explosive run-up is key. Unfortunately, when it came to end speed, I simply could not keep up. That’s when I concluded that sprinting was not my thing. I did not fare much better in the middle distances.
As for the long distance runs, I got my fill in the Swiss Army doing endurance cross-country runs in full combat gear and boots. I actually did reasonably well, but I wasn’t ready to submit myself to the required endless training and the pain that goes with it. And so went the last running option. And as if to drive home the point for good, when I resumed track and field at age 71, I promptly ended up with two hamstring injuries. And that was the final nail in my running career.
Deb – Since you had decided earlier in your life that running wasn’t for you, why did you resume a track and field career at age 71?
Bernie – When we moved from Columbus, Ohio to Ashburn, Virginia in 2009 to be closer to our grandchildren in Bethesda, I began looking for volunteer opportunities. I started with the Loudoun County website where the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Services looked promising. It was on a Friday when I called the department. The woman who answered the call asked me whether I was interested in sports which I answered in the affirmative.
It turned out the woman was the county’s representative on the Northern Virginia Senior Olympic Committee (NVSO). Not knowing that such a thing existed, I agreed, with great anticipation, to attend the monthly board meeting with her on the following Tuesday. And before I knew it I was a board member by the end of the meeting. And that’s when I decided to buy a pair of track shoes and become a senior olympian.
My focus at the NVSO quickly centered on the track and field events. When I noticed that the NVSO did not offer the high jump, I managed to change that within a year. The other major focus became redesigning the NVSO logo, designing the t-shirts, and other promotional items for the next eight years. But most importantly, I designed brand new modern looking NVSO medals. It could not have turned out any better. I mean, how many athletes get the opportunity to design their own medals?
Training at a Higher Level
Deb – Do you work with a coach or are you self-coached. Do you train alone or with other people? From where do you draw your motivation?
Bernie – I have coached myself since I resumed my track and field activities 10 years ago at age 71. I found that the internet offers an incredible wealth of information on literally every aspect of track and field. You simply learn from the best. And this, paired with my wife taking videos, allows me to constantly and critically assess my own progress. I have also been coaching ten seniors, six women (including my wife) and four men, ranging from age 54-85 for the past seven years. I found that coaching is an excellent way of improving my own technique, because it requires full knowledge of the discipline involved. But more importantly, I have to be able to demonstrate technique in the most perfect form possible. By the way, I take great pride in the fact that all the seniors I have coached have received gold and other medals at the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics and at the Virginia Senior Games.
I am drawing my motivation from four sources:
- My desire to do very well at all levels of competition
- Coaching others to help them stay active and healthy
- Staying healthy to be able to enjoy life to the fullest, and last but not least,
- My wife’s untiring support helping me overcome occasional doubts or when I sometimes do not feel like sticking to my training schedule.
Deb – I first noticed you doing jumping and skipping drills across the gym floor. Walk me through a typical gym workout.
Bernie – I found that the key to staying healthy and limiting injuries is to always stay relaxed. I learned this from my high school coach in Switzerland. Relaxed muscles tend to be less injury prone than tight ones, and only relaxed muscles perform at their optimal best. It begins with proper warm-up before engaging in any strenuous exercises. This is very important. I do the jumping and skipping between exercises to keep my body relaxed and ready for the next challenge.
Speed and explosiveness in the high jump and the javelin are very important. That’s why my goal in strength training is unlike a body builder who builds large muscles, or a runner who builds endurance. I place less emphasis on weight but on repetitious explosive lifts with controlled recoils.
Recognizing that typically a human’s weakest part of the body is the core, I put great emphasis on developing my abs and the lower back. Finally, muscles depend on strong oxygen intake for optimal performance. I breathe in before every individual lift and breathe out on the down or backstroke. This may sound trivial, but observing seniors at the gym where I live has shown that most seniors hold their breath for as long as they can during repeated lifts and then exhaust air explosively after the last lift with their face turned an almost purple red. This is not only counterproductive, but it makes weight lifting an unnecessarily unattractive exercise. In other words, proper breathing is as important as the lifting itself.
Deb – Where do you train for your actual events? Does a local high school or college allow you to use their field house or outdoor space?
Bernie – In the past few years I have limited my disciplines to the high jump and the javelin throw, particularly at state and national events, because these disciplines have been my most successful ones. The soccer field behind a nearby elementary school provides an ideal place to practice the javelin throw, except for the lack of a paved approach run usually used at the big events. On the other hand, finding a place to practice the high jump has been a real problem.
I have explored seven high schools in Northern Virginia. I have even travelled 50 miles one way to the Prince George’s Sports & Learning Complex in Andover, MD. I finally talked one high school athletic director into letting me use the high jump set up at his school. Some schools absolutely refused access because of liability concerns, sometimes implying that old folks are a special liability.
I have climbed over fences, I have cut through a narrow opening between padlocked posts, and I was even caught recently following some high school kids sneaking over the fence at one of the nearby high schools. This was just after the school had been closed because of the Coronavirus. Whether it was because of my age (81) or because I was really nice to the security officer, he dismissed me with the suggestion that I should follow today’s official security guidelines. And it will unfortunately get worse after the end of the school year when all equipment goes back into storage. What do you do when major competitions are still two months away? Use your own bed as the landing pad? You can only hope that other competitors do not fare better.
Deb – At what age did you start this higher level of competition? Do you mind if I ask how old you are now?
Bernie – As discussed previously, I resumed my track & field career in 2010 at age 71. I will turn 81 in May.
Nutrition and Hydration
Deb – I’m sure proper nutrition and hydration play a huge role in your level of performance. Can you tell me a little about your nutritional needs? Conversely, what are your indulgences?
Bernie – My wife is in charge of virtually everything I eat. If it were up to me, I’d forget to eat completely. When we met I weighed 135 pounds and was skinny. Over the past twenty or so years I’ve bulked up, but it’s 10 pounds of solid muscle. She insists that I eat three meals a day, and our dinners are usually chicken or fish with lots of vegetables and a starch. I’d eat pasta every day if I could, but she makes me eat brown rice and potatoes in addition to pasta. I don’t snack between meals and, to my wife’s dismay, I often forget to drink water. She is constantly on me to hydrate more. I must have a very fast metabolism, because if I don’t eat three solid meals a day I lose weight immediately. That my main indulgence is Swiss chocolate should not surprise anybody.
Titles Worth Noting
Deb – Please tell me a little bit about your various titles and when you earned them.
Bernie – As one who has always liked statistics, I have been compiling a running account of every competition over the last 10 years. Because of my specializing in the high jump and in the javelin throw in recent years, these are the disciplines with the best results.
• Awards in 9 disciplines at 21 Regional, State, National Regional, and National Competitions from 2010-2019: 66 Gold, 9 Silver, 2 Bronze, one 4th and two 5th places
National Events: 2013 National Senior Games, Cleveland OH
- • Javelin Throw (Gold)
- • High Jump (5th Place)
2014 USA Masters Track & Field Championships, Winston Salem NC
- • High Jump (Silver)
- • Javelin Throw (Bronze)
2015 USA Masters Track & Field Championships, Jacksonville FL
- • High Jump (Gold)
- • Javelin Throw (Silver)
2019 National Senior Games, Albuquerque NM
- • High Jump (Gold)
- • Javelin Throw (5th Place)
- • High Jump – Number 1 World Ranking in the 80-84 age group for 2019 in Albuquerque, NM
- • Javelin – Number 5 World Ranking in the 80-84 age group in the Virginia Senior Games after winning first place
Records Broken: Northern Virginia Senior Games
- • 16 Records in 6 disciplines in the following age groups:
- • 7 in the 70-74 age group
- • 6 in the 75-79 age group
- • 4 in the 80-84 age group
The Virginia Senior Games do not keep records.
Deb – Of all of your local, regional, state, and national titles, which is the most meaningful to you and why?
Bernie – The first national title in the javelin throw at the National Senior Games in Cleveland in 2013 and the last national title in the high jump at the USA Masters Track & Field National Championships in Albuquerque in 2019 are the two titles I cherish the most for different reasons.
The Cleveland national title cemented my belief that I could be a force on the National scene. It was also a return to Ohio visiting old friends in Columbus where I had lived for 43 years.
The Albuquerque national title was equally meaningful because I was literally running on my last leg. Both my knees showed serious wear and pain became a factor in the competition. I had entered both the javelin and the high jump. Fortunately, the high jump came first. The javelin throw immediately followed the high jump, and at that time my knees simply could not handle the stress. Hence the, for me, disappointing 5th place. Had the sequence of events been reversed, I most likely would not have been able to win the high jump. This just goes to confirm that you can’t always win and that sometimes you have to have a little bit of luck on your side.
Looking Ahead, What’s Next For Bernie Stamm
Deb – What competitions are on your 2020 calendar?
Bernie – Following the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics in September 2019, my knees became a serious problem. I decided the time had come to do something about it. Two partial knee replacements, one in October of 2019, and the other in January 2020 took care of the problem. My rapid recovery even surprised my surgeon and in the middle of February he declared me ready to take on any sport I desired. And with his blessing I was back in the gym by the end of February. I rapidly ratcheted up my strength training and a local gym owner let me use his facility for javelin training until the weather broke. The declared goal was to enter the Virginia Senior Games in May and the World Masters Track and Field Championships in Toronto late July. My expectations were very high. I had finished 2019 with the #1 World Ranking in the High Jump in the 80-84 age group, and the #5 Ranking in the Javelin. The most recent world rankings show that there is no 79 year old moving up to the 80-84 age group to challenge me. Based on this recognition I was ready and willing to do what is needed to win the high jump competition. In fact, the current world record is only 3/8 inch higher than the US record, and I am seriously eyeing the possibility of equalizing and/or breaking both records.
But my well-conceived plans rapidly turned into a very sad story. Because of the Coronavirus, the local schools shut down all facilities, eliminating any possibility of practicing the high jump. Then the Virginia Senior Games and the Tokyo Olympic Games were postponed. And because of seniors’ increased vulnerability to the Coronavirus, the doors also closed to the World Masters Games. It is an unfortunate turn of events, and I can sympathize with the real Olympic athletes. However, comparing with what millions are going through because of the Coronavirus, I consider my situation a very small and insignificant inconvenience. Besides, there is always next year, even at my age.
Final Words Of Wisdom
Deb – Do you have anything additional you would like to add?
Bernie – I am often asked what the secret to my athletic success is. My simple answer is: “Overcome limitations!” I am 5′- 6″ tall and I weigh 145 pounds. These are hardly statistics that make one a superior athlete, particularly a high jumper where a jumper’s average height is in the mid to high six-foot range.
Here is what has worked for me. It is a combination of, not necessarily in the order of importance:
- • Acquiring superior technique in every discipline I am competing in by using the almost limitless resources on the internet (e.g. I taught myself the Fosbury Flop, a decidedly superior high jump technique. This helped me overcome my being too short for the high jump. It turned out that I am still the only high jumper in my age group in the US using the technique)
- • Developing optimal discipline specific speed (e.g. finding the speed in the high jump beyond which my legs would buckle under the pressure on the take off leg, and in the javelin throw the speed beyond which my body cannot perform the intricate moves during the last three steps)
- • Using the internet for information applicable to the mental and emotional aspects of competitive sports
- • Visualizing the sequence of moves in each discipline before falling asleep or when having moments of sleeplessness
- • Having my wife providing instant feedback by using the slow motion feature video capabilities of her telephone
- • Sticking to a well conceived rigorous training regimen. That’s all folks!
- • What additional questions would you like to ask Bernie?
- • Have you ever tried throwing a javelin, doing the high jump, or any of the other field events associated with track and field? ~ I tried the high jump a few times in high school and let’s just say I was an utter flop; not a Fosbury flop, an utter flop! 😉
- • Have you have any major sporting events you were training for postponed due to COVID-19?