The Longevity Project: Valley residents defy age by remaining active
Post Independent and Aspen Times
Editor’s note: This is the second of the series The Longevity Project, a collaboration between The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
They swim, they run, they ski, they bike.
There are truly some unbelievable Roaring Fork and Colorado valley residents out there who maintain fantastic physique regardless of their generation.
These ageless, ironclad athletes are not only relentless when it comes to health discipline — they’re inspirational.
For the second installment of this year’s Longevity Project, the Aspen Times and Post Independent sat down and picked the brains of these folks.
And what we found out is, it’s a lot easier to overcome life’s greatest challenges if you’re fit.
Fit is fantastic
When Gary Miller was faced with life-threatening illnesses, he almost gave up. But putting up a fight proved to be the best response.
“I think a lot of people just give up and that’s an easy trap to fall into,” Miller said. “The worst thing you can do is give up.”
Originally, the Garfield County retiree said he did give up. He said he started balancing his checkbook and cleaned his garage. It was then, however, he reversed course.
His solution: exercising.
Miller was diagnosed with kidney cancer and congestive heart failure and his doctor didn’t sound too optimistic about his recovery. Miller was very active throughout his life, but had a knee replacement surgery six months before his cancer diagnosis.
There was about a year he wasn’t able to work out, and he seemed to have the odds stacked against him, which made giving up seem so easy.
“Congestive heart failure diagnosis is almost the kiss of death,” he said. “I am very lucky and very fortunate.”
He started slowly, working himself and his heart rate up.
“I was watching myself get more and more healthy through tracking my heart recovery rate,” Miller said.
Miller said he made the doctors remove his kidney, and when they did they were shocked it wasn’t as bad as they thought. With the cancer out of the way, his doctors said he could then focus on his heart.
Swimming and mountain biking were the treatments he needed to bring his heart back.
“Going into a sickness being fit is so helpful,” Miller said.
Although he didn’t start as an athlete, swimming and then mountain biking became things he loved doing.
“I wasn’t an athlete in high school,” Miller said. “I started managing the for the (Glenwood Hot Springs Pool) and got addicted to working out and fitness. I fell in love with mountain biking.”
Starting slowly and getting a heart rate going is what he recommended for people just beginning to exercise, whether for the first time or after taking a long time away from it.
“Building these short distances and staying with it is important,” he said.
Warming up before extensive exercise was also recommended. For example, if someone thinks they will lose their breath on Doc Holliday’s Grave Trailhead, they should warm up by walking a couple blocks on a less-steep section beforehand, Miller said.
“I’ve always been aware of maintaining a rapid heartbeat recovery from peak,” Miller said.
And bringing your heart rate back down steadily after a good exercise is helpful for heart health.
Breathing is also important for working up to harder forms of exercise and heart health, he said. Make sure to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. And don’t hold your breath, he said.
“I really feel like I stumbled onto a process of recovery from congestive heart failure that worked for me,” Miller said. “At 76 years old, I consider myself pretty darn athletic.”
Attitude goes a long way in staying healthy late in life, and nobody embodies that better than longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident Jacques “Frenchy” Houot. A passionate skier and cyclist who was competing in Aspen Cycling Club events into his 80s — he officially “retired” from competition in recent years — his journey to becoming one of the area’s most passionate racers was showcased in a short documentary called “The Frenchy” by Michelle Smith, which made its debut in 2018.
“I am 41-years-old, each leg,” Houot said in the film, which documents him skiing shirtless, biking technical terrain, pedaling a fat tire bike through snow, paragliding, and offering nuggets of wisdom from his Carbondale home.
In talking with the Aspen Times around the film’s release, Houot credited laughter with being what’s kept him going all these years. He admitted to surviving cancer, a heart attack, an avalanche, and numerous crashes.
A nagging back injury, he said in the film, was cured by volunteering at a disabled military veterans’ ski race at Aspen Highlands.
“They don’t complain,” he said then. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t have a right to complain.’ … Then I said, ‘No problem!’ to my back. That fixed me.”
Even when not competing, Houot could always be found near the course, cheering racers on, whether that be on skis or a bike. His continued enthusiasm for the sports — not to mention his distinct accent — is part of what drew Smith to want to focus on Houot for the documentary. As Smith recalled, he was eager to share his life story and his idiosyncratic health remedies — often arriving at her home unannounced to impart wisdom, tell jokes, chat about his day or discuss the latest World Cup results.
“The energy was infectious,” Smith said then. “He is just nonstop.”
“I want people to think that it doesn’t matter how old you are, you can still do what you want with your life, have fun and laugh,” Smith added. “That’s the most important thing. … You can defy aging if you have the right attitude.”
Not just another day
As the brisk morning air fills the Roaring Fork Valley, 62-year-old Mike Vidakovich embarks on a run that challenges many half his age. This isn’t a new pursuit; it’s a testament to a lifetime of athletic tenacity and a steadfast dedication to well-being.
“I’ve been lucky when I was a sophomore in high school here playing basketball. I had to have minor knee surgery over Christmas break, but I was right back out on the court like three weeks later,” Vidakovich said.
Despite the years and various sports he’s engaged in, injuries have been few. When they have occurred, his recovery approach combined advice, intuition and a dose of patience.
“I just seek advice from people who have had similar little setbacks and just try to do the rehabilitation,” he said, referencing a previous leg ailment. “I would still go out and jog for a little ways. And then I’d walk when it started to tighten up.”
Beyond the occasional injury, Vidakovich’s commitment to fitness isn’t just about physical prowess. It’s also a mental game.
“I’ve always enjoyed exercise, especially the anaerobic stuff like distance running,” Vidakovich said. “I like to see how far I can push myself.”
For Vidakovich, age is just a number. He remains the oldest player in the Rifle co-ed softball league and stays active with regular stints at the athletic club. His morning ritual often includes runs near West Glenwood, pushing himself up challenging terrains and reflecting by a creek.
His advice for those looking to stay active as they age? Don’t stop.
“There’s no stopping,” Vidakovich said. “I’ll be 63 in November and it’s much more difficult to try to come back if I stop now. I just enjoy it. Movement, runs, softball, golf. Part of it I may even call competitiveness, but I feel I was born to push myself and I enjoy doing it.”
And perhaps that’s the secret. Every morning Vidakovich wakes up in the Roaring Fork Valley, it’s not just another day. It’s a bonus, another opportunity to push limits and savor life’s vibrant pulse.
Sheldon Wolitski’s story is one of transformation. At 51, his earlier years on the hockey rinks during high school and college came with a cost: lingering shoulder injuries that forced him to quit the game by his sophomore year.
“The impact on my body became overwhelming,” Wolitski said.
Now, with a household bustling with five children under the age of nine, he’s channeled his energy into a pursuit of longevity and optimal living.
“The injuries from my hockey days set a trajectory. Longevity is now front and center for me,” Wolitski said. “At 51, living an optimal life has taken precedence.”
As the founder and president of Colorado Xtreme Hockey, Wolitski’s commitment to health isn’t just a personal endeavor. His home is a testament to this, featuring wellness tools like hyperbaric chambers, cold therapy units, a 210-degree sauna and red light therapy.
“After hockey, I started competing in Ironman competitions. By my eighth competition I started to understand the importance of recovery,” Wolitski said. “From there, focusing on longevity, especially as an older father, was a clear path.”
Wolitski’s vision expanded to the workplace when he founded Aspen HPX, an organization welded to assist those looking for a healthy lifestyle. There, a study aimed at employee wellness and peak performance yielded impressive results — a 35% increase in performance for employees involved with organization compared to their counterparts.
“Taking care of oneself has tangible benefits, both professionally and personally,” he observed.
For those keen on emulating his approach, Wolitski points to Tony Robbins’ novel “Lifeforce” as a starting guide. He’s also a staunch advocate for functional integrative medicine, emphasizing its holistic and preventive perspective.
“The healthcare landscape is evolving. A holistic, preventive approach is the future,” Wolitski stated. “Grasping one’s biomarkers and connecting with the right medical experts can redefine health.”
For the former hockey player, the pursuit of longevity is a game worth playing, and in the Roaring Fork Valley, he’s seizing each day with purpose.
The next Longevity Project event is slated for 5:30-7 p.m. Oct. 4 at The Arts Campus At Willits (TACAW), 400 Robinson St., Basalt. The panel is titled, “How to maintain mobility, balance and athleticism throughout life” and will feature experts in the field.
Tickets can be purchased at https://www.aspentimes.com/longevity-project-2023-fall/.
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