Mary Kemp’s philosophy on running is simple.
“Do what you can and then feel proud of it,” the 96-year-old Florida resident, who began competitive running for the first time at age 94, tells SELF. Two years later, Kemp has much to feel proud of, including 12 finished races, multiple gold medals, and the resulting newfound fame. She’s still getting used to it all.
Kemp’s foray into the competitive track circuit was nothing short of explosive. In her first ever national race, the 50-yard dash at the 2017 National Senior Games (also known as the Senior Olympics, a 20-sport biennial competition for 50-plus athletes), she won gold, besting the competition in her 90-plus age group by more than 9 seconds.
“I heard people yelling at me—'Go, Mary! Go!'—and when I got to the end, I kept yelling at everybody, asking: 'Did I win? Did I win?'” Kemp tells SELF. “A man finally said to me, 'Put a stop to it, you did win.'”
The next Senior Olympics, hosted by the National Senior Games Association, will take place in June 2019 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and qualifying state-level competitions are currently underway now through December. While Kemp isn’t sure yet if she’ll vie for a spot at Nationals again, she’s putting in the hard work anyway—and enjoying every step of the journey.
Kemp began running—for the first time ever—shortly before her 95th birthday, thanks to her son's encouragement.
Although she didn’t play organized sports growing up (aside from a stint on the volleyball team in high school), Kemp says she’s always been physically active, mostly through yard work, including gardening, lawn mowing, raking, and shoveling.
“Instead of going to running races, the way I grew up was doing manual labor with my parents,” says Kemp, who was born and raised in Ohio by Polish immigrants, and later served in the U.S. Army during World War II, doing mostly clerical work. “It was a necessity and a way of life.”
Kemp moved to Boca Raton, Florida, six years ago to live with her daughter and son-in-law, and picked up running last year after some prodding from her son, Glenn Kemp, 70, who suggested that she try for the Senior Olympics. Glenn competes in men’s senior basketball.
“I didn’t know what a race looked like or was until I came here to Florida and found out what it’s all about,” says Kemp. Her first race was a local dash in Florida in 2017, and she quickly became hooked. Since then, she’s laced up for nearly a dozen more competitions, running the 50-yard, 100-yard and 200-yard distances, and adding more hardware to her growing medal collection each time. Along with the accolades comes commentary on her impressive athletic feats. “Everywhere I go, I get wonderful compliments, whether I am racing or not,” Kemp says. “It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been famous.”
She says she’ll continue to appreciate the attention “as long as I don’t have a big head,” in which case, “my family members will say, 'Cool it!'”
Kemp stays grounded by paying the positive vibes forward. “I tell the other ladies [at the gym and in competition] that if they have aches or pain, just keep going and do what the doctor tells you to do, you’ll be OK.”
To prep for her races, Kemp goes to the gym six days a week, where she participates in various 45-minute fitness classes for senior citizens, including yoga, weight lifting, and aerobic exercises.
When it comes to weight lifting, Kemp’s approach is: “Lift more than a piece of paper.” Since joining the local gym, she’s graduated from 1-pound weights to 3-pound weights. “I’ve built up my biceps,” says Kemp. “Even some men [at the gym] get scared when they see my biceps. I tell them it’s OK—I won’t hurt them.”
But it’s not all about the brawn. Kemp’s favorite class—Cardio Challenge—involves aerobic exercises around the track. “We’re moving the legs and knees up and down and the arms at the same time,” she says of the class format. “There’s little time to drink water.”
Kemp isn’t certain, but she thinks she could be the oldest patron at her gym, a possibility she thoroughly enjoys. “I see people in their 70’s, 60’s, and 50’s, and I say they are the youngsters,” she says. “And then when I see a girl in her 30’s, I want to put her in a crib.”
After all that exercising, Kemp jokes that she is “usually looking for a bed [to nap in]—even if I have to go to the neighbor’s house.”
When race day rolls around, Kemp pumps herself up with positive self-talk.
Pre-race jitters don’t seem to bother Kemp much. “The way I was raised, when you have stuff to do, you just do it,” she explains. Also: “When you are up in years like I am, and you’ve had so much life…everything is good.”
This glass-half-full mentality translates well to competition. “I think to myself, You can do it, lady, you can do it,” Kemp says of the mid-race dialogue that plays on loop in her head. “I am using various vocabulary words that are nice to keep me going.”
She also does her best to stay focused, a lesson she learned the hard way. In a recent race, she missed the starting gun because she was talking. “All the people left and I was left behind,” recalls Kemp. “I found out that was the race I was supposed to be on, and I ran for my life. In the end, I won, but it was a lesson about listening instead of talking all the time.”
As for her future running goals, Kemp is currently debating signing up for another local race this July, but overall, likes to take things one race at at time.
Her advice for others who want to start running: “Start walking and make sure that you get serious about the walk,” she says. “Stretch your legs, get those feet moving, relax your body and your mind if you can, and just go for it.”