Gene Sutter is happy to be back in the game at age 86.
Nearly 200 medals line the walls of two rooms at his Sun City West house. But he most values the camraderie and the ability to exercise regularly 26 years into retirement.
His wife of 57 years, Anna, died in September 2015. It took Mr. Sutter about two years to resume playing softball and running track.
“I couldn’t play the first couple years. It’s going to be three years this month,” Mr. Sutter said. “I played in the first summer session last year and got back into senior olympics in February.”
It is hard to imagine someone who stays this active spending most of his middle years standing around, but that is where life led Mr. Sutter.
He did not reach full height of 6 feet until after high school but played basketball and baseball and ran track in a small school south of Peoria, Illinois. Mr. Sutter said he was not good at any sports in his youth.
Mr. Sutter began his career in a Peoria, Ill. bank, then owned a Dairy Queen store in Pontiac, Ill. He and Anna moved to Scottsdale in 1972 and he owned a Dairy Queen in east Phoenix.
“Then I got burnt out — two shifts a day — so at the end I was a bookeeper for a graphic arts company in Phoenix,” Mr. Sutter said.
While he retained his lean build, it was tough to exercise regularly while working and raising two children. Mr. Sutter resumed a more active lifestyle after retiring in 1992.
He said the extensive fitness centers available in the Sun Cities were their main draw.
“I’ve always had nervous energy. Being in the Dairy Queen business really stopped that because you’re just waiting on people constantly,” Mr. Sutter said.
Making up for lost time, he found guys his age to play basketball and volleyball with. Mr. Sutter also started play in the Sun Cities Softball League.
His senior olympics debut was in 1995, competing in basketball and volleyball.
Then, Mr. Sutter decided to add individual sports to the menu, trying out different events. He traveled, participating in senior olympic games in Flagstaff, Prescott and Sierra Vista, though not in recent years.
“Little by little, in smaller cities compared to Phoenix, finances are a concern. Senior Olympics are the first thing that gets cut. Flagstaff and Prescott don’t have it anymore, and I don’t think Sierra Vista does, but I haven’t checked because it’s too far.”
Locally, he made a name for himself in softball. In more than two decades Mr. Sutter has played in all three leagues, cycling from the American to the Central and now the National.
The National League is set aside for less mobile and less skilled players, said softball committee chair Bill Goldspink, a resident of Sun City. Despite being 10 years older than the average player in the league, Sutter is one of the most sought after guys during drafts, Mr. Goldspink said.
“Generally speaking, it’s the legs that go first. Although Gene is very fast for this league” Mr. Goldspink said.
Mr. Sutter said he shares tips with his younger softball friends, about his exercise regimen. When at home, he lays on the floor of his den and do hundreds of exercises.
Regular walks in the mornings and bike rides along the canal trail near Loop 303 keep him spry. He said he tries to work out at Palm Ridge Recreation Center three times a week.
On the diamond, Mr. Sutter still is in demand as a pinch runner for players that have trouble getting around the bases. Mr. Goldpink said said he’s enjoyed playing next to Mr. Sutter in the infield and is inspired by him.
“You love to see a guy that’s 86 years old out there playing. It gives you hope you can when you’re that age,” Mr. Goldspink said.
Mr. Sutter said age is a matter of mind, if you don’t mind it doesn’t matter.While competition motivtes him, his best experiences through sports have come from befriending people he otherwise would never meet.
“In Senior Olympics new people come in from out of state. You get to know those people and compete with them,” Mr. Sutter said. “Everybody gets along really good. There’s almost 400 guys playing softball in the Sun Cities.”In the senior olympics realm, basketball and volleyball have given way to more track events.
Mr. Sutter competed running long jump for a while, until he turned his ankle getting out of the pit a few years ago. Now it’s the standing long jump, 50-, 100-, and 200-meters. He also dabbles in shot put, discus and javelin.
And he hopes, in sharing his story some neighbors will join in and find the exercise of sports that adds to their fulfillment.
“There are so many things in the Sun Cities that you can do. You can stay active in almost 100 things,” Mr. Sutter said.