George Walden wasn’t particularly athletic in high school, working as a bag boy in a grocery store rather than participating in after school sports. Later, as a parent of grammar school students, he played a little softball, and routinely enjoyed backpacking in the Sierra with his wife, Bea, for a couple of decades.
That was the sum total of his somewhat haphazard exercise routine until he picked up his first tennis racket at age 40, sparking a love affair that has lasted nearly half a century. It all started with his simple desire to try something athletic.
“My uncle gave me a couple of old wooden tennis rackets, so Bea and I went out to a local park in Oakland and began hitting balls all over the place ... especially over the fence,” Walden explained.
Today, at age 86, Walden is still in the process of perfecting his game, playing competitive, intensive tennis at least twice a week with a group of 10 players, 40 years of age and up. Each year, the group participates in the Palm Desert Open Senior Cup, taking second place in the 50-and over 3.5 division after winning the championship in 2016.
“There were 750 athletes in last year’s tournament. At the big dinner for all the players, the tournament director made an announcement that I was the oldest participant. I played five different doubles matches in three days, and won every one of them,” Walden recalled. “It does help to have good partners.”
Walden has competed off and on in tournaments for the last 20 years. He’s played in the men’s singles 85+ division, winning a gold medal in the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah. This qualified him for the 2017 Nationals held in June in Birmingham, Alabama. There he competed in the 85-89 year old division, and walked away with the silver medal in men’s singles.
He recently competed in the Huntsman Games last October, winning the gold in both the men’s singles and men’s doubles with partner Jim Wainscott of Fresno.
“I love tennis,” Walden said. “I find it invigorating. It keeps me young, active and agile. And as long as I feel like I’m playing well, I will keep playing. I’m still trying to improve my game after all these years. Some days, I feel like I’m playing better than I did 10 years ago, and other days, I feel like I played lousy. My partners will tell me how well I played, but I don’t know if they tell me that because of my age or because I actually played a good game.”
From the comments of a few of his fellow players, age has little to do with the compliments.
“George is an inspiration to us all,” said Irwin Iida, 68, who has been playing tennis with Walden for seven years. “He plays like a 25-year-old.”
“We’re impressed with all the tournaments he’s won. He plays against 50-year-olds and wins. You should see all his gold medals ... he looks like Mister T,” added 44-year-old B.J. Stewart, who has also been playing with Walden for seven years.
B.J.’s teen-age son, Burke, is equally impressed with Walden, admiring how well he moves on the courts. Burke, 17, currently plays on the Yosemite High tennis team.
Along with tennis, Walden attends aerobic classes at Mountain Muscle. As for a special diet, he eats whatever he wants (especially chocolate and ice cream), but in moderation. No pigging out.
“I survived a heart attack and triple by-pass operation in 2006, and nine months of chemotherapy for lung cancer in 2008,” Walden continued. “I got back on the court as soon as possible each time and believe tennis helped in my recoveries.”
Walden offers a few words of advice to those who prefer a couch-potato lifestyle.
“I realize that people over 50 can have physical problems that restrict movements, but if you can walk, get out and walk ... it’s good exercise. Do something physical, even if it’s yard work. It keeps you young. It adds years to your life. Sometimes I feel like I’m 66 ... even when I feel those aches and pains while playing tennis, I just play right through it.”
The group currently plays at Yosemite High School when they can arrange for a court, as well as in Bass Lake. Quite frankly, Walden is a little discouraged with the options.
“I’m very disappointed in Madera County because there are no public courts in this area,” Walden said. “Mariposa County has three tennis courts at the public park.”
Walden retired in Dec. 1990 as an engineer from Pacific Bell. Once daughter Karen Taylor and husband Frank moved to Oakhurst in 1999, the Waldens relocated to the area a year later.
Even though he has tried to get his five grandchildren interested in tennis, so far, there hasn’t been much of a spark, but Walden refuses to give up.
For anyone thinking of taking up the sport, Walden offers, “Go for it. Don’t get discouraged. Take some lessons to learn the fundamentals. A coach once said, ‘you need to hit a million balls ... so practice, practice, practice.’”
Taylor’s voice bursts with pride when talking about her dad. “I think tennis is what keeps him going. He has amazing energy, and still gets out there even when he’s not feeling 100%. I’m so proud of him, of all his accomplishments and all his medals. He’s an inspiration to us all and a reminder of just how important it is to stay physically fit.”