It’s not unusual to see dads coaching their sons and daughters. What is unusual is a son coaching his dad. Rarer still is the opportunity for the duo to compete on an international level among the world’s oldest athletes.
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – It’s not unusual to see dads coaching their sons and daughters. What is unusual is a son coaching his dad. Rarer still is the opportunity for the duo to compete on an international level among the world’s oldest athletes.
Istvan Kovacs, a Slippery Rock University assistant professor of physical and health education, experienced that rarest of coaching opportunities when he coached his 90-year-old father — yes, 90 — at the World Masters Athletics Track and Field Championships, Sept. 4-16, in Malaga, Spain.
“He was my coach in high school and now I’m trying to return the favor,” said Kovacs, who cracked a smile when reflecting on the role reversal. “We are having fun.”
Kovacs excelled at track and field while growing up in Hungary, holding a junior national record in the triple jump, before becoming a successful college coach, training the top national jumpers for 12 years at the University of Physical Education in Budapest. His father, also named Istvan Kovacs, was a physical education teacher at Ferenc Erkel High School in Gyula, Hungary, where he mentored his son in track and field.
The elder Kovacs has long since retired and his son is now an American citizen, teaching physical and health education at SRU for the last 15 years. The younger Kovacs, 51, makes it back to Hungary at least once every other year and he still keeps ties to the track and field community in his native country.
As fate would have it, the World Master Athletes championships, which attracts more than 8,000 athletes ages 35 and older, also happens every two years. So Kovacs decided to leverage his knowledge of track and field and his English skills and volunteered to support – there are no designated coaches – several of the 48 Hungarian compatriots, including his own patriarch.
“I had to apply different methods than coaching young athletes,” Kovacs said. “All these (senior) athletes are intrinsically motivated; their motivation comes from within. They are very self-conscious of how to jump, their technique, how to warm-up and what to do between attempts. They’ve been doing this for decades, so I don’t have to give as much advice, but there’s always a need for feedback. When they are jumping, they don’t see themselves from the outside. There are reference points and markers during the movement that they need to know, like (for high jumpers) how far the takeoff is from the bar.”
Kovacs’ father placed in three events, taking bronze in both the triple jump and high jump and fourth in the weight throw. Athletes compete in age groups divided in five-year increments. There were only about a half dozen competitors for the events in his father’s 90-95 age group and only 10 for the entire event.
“He’s now the young guy in his category,” Kovacs said with a laugh.
According to Kovacs, the celebrities at the event were the two centenarians, Giuseppe Ottaviani, 102, of Italy, a long jumper in the men’s 100-and-older age “group,” and Man Kaur of India, 101, the only 100-and-older female entrant in the javelin. Kovacs said a goal for many competitors is to live to 100 and run the 100 meters.
“It’s amazing,” said Kovacs, who marveled at what he learned from talking to competitors from all over world. “They are very good at goal-setting. They have goals for the season, for next year, for five years from now. Through sports, they find motivation. That gives them purpose and happiness in life, at least for the physical aspect of life.”
After Kovacs’ father retired from teaching, he started training and remained active, going for a walk before breakfast, gardening and meeting friends at the local track, eventually starting a club.
“I could see the health benefits when he started again,” Kovacs said. “When he was 70, he looked better than when he was 50.”
His improved health is a credit to less stress from work and more time for physical activity, but also his father’s commitment to a structured lifestyle and refusal to spend his retirement years relaxing, something that Kovacs learned from the other WMA competitors.
“These people don’t think like that; they don’t go to work (anymore) but they are busy,” Kovacs said. “They have a plan for each day that keeps them sharp mentally because each of them is fit physically, mentally, socially, emotionally … in all aspects of wellness and life.”
To hear Kovacs’ admiration for his father and the other competitors, the father-son dynamic is still intact despite the role reversal of coach and athlete, and the way his father is moving on to his next goal the way a young man with a lifetime ahead of him would.
Not to dwell on his accomplishment, Kovacs’ father was ready to throw away the bib number he wore at the WMA Championships. His son asked for the memento instead, and it’s now proudly displayed on his office wall a world away at SRU.
“I’m amazed at how he’s 90 and he’s still going,” Kovacs said.