76-year-old Athlete Fuels His Inner Competitor

Liz Merritt
May 12, 2017

The way Ralph Ward sees the world, if you can do it, so can he. That’s the way this 76-year-old athlete rolls. He believes nothing is impossible with a determined mindset.

“Sports enriches our lives so much,” Ward says. “I view my story as an ordinary guy who happened to get into something he enjoyed doing. I was pretty good at it, and it drove me to be more competitive later in life.”

Discovering the Inner Athlete

76-year-old athlete

Ward at the 2015 USA Triathlon National Championships.

Mind you, this Pennsylvania native and retired marketing professional did not discover his inner athlete until his early 50s. The epiphany came after a divorce and a job that had him traveling five days a week, 40 pounds overweight and down in the dumps.

“I thought to myself, I have to do something,” Ward recalls. He tells a story about a company executive who showed up to a speech rehearsal in running clothes, drenched in sweat, and beaming with megawatt energy. That man inspired Ward to take action, and the rest is history.

Baby Steps

“I started to walk and got to the point I was walking 20 minutes and feeling pretty good about it,” he says. That 20-minute walk evolved to a 20-minute walk/run to 20 minutes of running. “All I want to do was lose weight and start to feel better about myself.”

He would soon meet his future wife, Jan, at a Christian singles gathering. Before long, the couple ran their first 5K race together. That race led to others, and by his third race, Ward took home the win in his age group.

Competitive Spirit

That’s when his competitive spark was lit. “From that point on, I never stopped,” Ward says. “I ran 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons and full marathons. My last marathon was when I was 60 years old. It was the Disney Marathon.”

The couple moved to Tampa, Florida in the late 1990s, and Ward retired in 2003. Family ties lured them to Idaho in the summers, and that’s where Ward discovered the sport of triathlon. He volunteered at a local triathlon in Coeur d’Alene, and as he watched the athletes swim, bike and run, he felt a familiar tug on his competitive heart.

Why Not Me?

“I said, gee, I can do that. So I started training for a triathlon. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew I could figure it out,” he says. His newfound passion for the sport led him to his first sprint distance triathlon in 2007, using a mountain bike for the cycling leg of the race.

“I wish I had discovered this sooner,” he says, beaming. “I didn’t even know what a triathlon was, but I loved the cross-training and multiple disciplines.”

Leveling Up

76-year-old athlete

Ward focuses on sprint distance triathlons in the 75-79 age group.

Armed with a book, a new road bike and the right gear, Ward immersed himself in training and racing throughout 2008. “I became very competitive in my age group at that time and began doing the longer, Olympic distances,” he says.

That year, he qualified for his first national championship race. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he says. He placed 17th. “What happens at our age when we get up into the 60s and 70s, it becomes really competitive. It’s really tough, and the strong ones are still racing.”

He has participated in multiple, successive national championships since then and is now competing in the 75-79 age group and focusing on sprint distances. Ward says triathlon makes it possible to extend his longevity as an athlete. “It doesn’t give me as much wear and tear on my body because I’m not running every day.”

After surviving a bone-crushing bicycle crash that ended his 2010 racing season, Ward returned to the sport late that year and had to do one qualifying race to make it to nationals.

“You could call me a Type A personality,” Ward says. “I have that drive and want to win. I do whatever I feel is necessary to do the best I possibly can. And I don’t let age or aches and pains be a factor.”

He did that race – a sprint distance triathlon – in Moscow, Idaho and won his age group. With his spot secured for nationals in 2011, he breathed a sigh of relief.

Team USA

76-year-old athlete

Ward (far right) and competitors in the 70-74 and 75-79 age groups at the 2014 ITU World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

He had the opportunity to compete for a spot on Team USA at the 2012 Triathlon World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand. “I really, really wanted to make Team USA that year because I wanted to see New Zealand.” Needless to say, the dream became a reality, and Ward came in 7th overall in the 70-74 age group sprint distance competition.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that Ward will never forget. “The pride of representing your country, marching in the parade of nations, all the pomp and circumstance was incredible.”

Since then, Ward has competed in world championship races in London, England in 2013, Edmonton, Canada in 2014; and Chicago in 2015. He qualified to race at worlds in Cozumel, Mexico in 2016 and Rotterdam, Amsterdam this year, but elected to something a bit different.

Enter the Race-Cation

This is not just about racing for Ralph and Jan Ward. They make life experiences out of racing by combining the places they’ve always wanted to visit with a list of triathlons near those destinations.

76-year-old athlete

Ralph and Jan Ward at Yosemite National Park.

“I find a destination race, and then we make a vacation out of it,” Ward explains. Last year, he raced the Bass Lake, California, Triathlon, followed by a week of sightseeing and hiking in Yosemite National Park. And next week, he competes in a sprint distance triathlon at Sand Hollow State Park Reservoir in Hurricane, Utah, followed by a sightseeing trip to Zion National Park.

If I Can Do It, So Can You

As Ward reflects on his 20+ year athletic career, he is grateful to have found the sport he loves at any age. Hip replacement surgery in 2014 didn’t even get him down. “Because I was active before the surgery, it helped me recover really fast,” he says. “My doctor told me I have the best equipment in there and I’ve probably got 30 years to go on it. I said, ‘Great, I’ll be in the 100-104 racing age group!’”

Today, Ward is a member of the First Wave Triathlon Club in metro Phoenix and spends time mentoring younger athletes.

“I don’t think about age,” Ward says emphatically. “People tell me, ‘You can’t be 76 years old!’ Well I am. And I’m healthy. I’m pretty darned competitive. And I train six days a week.”

It doesn’t look like Ralph Ward will be slowing down anytime soon.

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