Going for gold in the golden years: Danville graduates compete in senior Olympic games

Two Danville High School graduates in their 80s are determined to stay active during their golden years. One way they do this is competing in the Kentucky Senior Games each year in track and field and race walk events.

This year’s Kentucky Senior Games took place on July 17. The games take place each year but didn’t in 2020 due to COVID-19.

Ron Chilton, 85, graduated from Danville High School in 1953. He was a nighttime DJ for WHIR Danville Hometown Radio in 1960, then worked at radio stations in Lexington and Louisville. He’s lived in Louisville since the early ‘70s.

He’s been doing the senior games since 1997 and traveled to Elizabethtown to compete, starting with a couple of events.

“And then I was hooked,” he said. “I wanted to try more and more, and so I worked my way up to 10 events.”

This year, he won 10 gold medals in the 50-meter dash, 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, 400-meter dash, long jump, triple jump, javelin, discus, shot put and the 1,500-meter race walk. The way the senior games work is in age groups of five-year increments, so he competed in the ages 85-89 group.

When he first started out, he did the 50-meter dash and the high jump and said he didn’t do very well, so that’s when he knew he needed someone to coach him. He had played basketball in high school but never did track and field, so he said he needed to learn techniques. A coach taught him how to hold a discus and a shot put and how to throw a javelin.

“And also, I knew that I had to start training, and so I got me a gym membership and started building some muscles even at the advanced age 24 years ago,” he said.

Though he wasn’t very athletic in his early years, he always admired those who were.

“As a matter of fact, my hero back then was E.G. Plummer,” he said.

Plummer was a “superstar” on the high school track team and holds a 5K event each year at Admiral Stadium, which Chilton participates in.

“And boy, I’m telling you, it is really grueling,” Chilton said. “And I am by far the oldest competitor.”

The Kentucky Senior Games have been held in various parts of the state, including Danville at Centre College, and they have taken Chilton around the state since he competes every year. This year, they were held in Louisville at Eastern High School and hosted competitors from various states.

Chilton said he trains with a personal trainer three times a week, goes to the gym, watches his diet and takes vitamins and supplements to keep himself healthy and active. He said his motivation is not just to win medals and meet the friends he has met through the games, but also to inspire other seniors.

“That’s my main thing is to get someone else excited about being an athlete in their golden years,” he said.

He wants to be active until the end of his life and has told his wife, “If I were to expire right out there on the track, you know that’s the way I wanted to go.”

One friend he met through the games was a retired dentist named Howard Hall, who was from western Kentucky and died last year at the age of 99. They became friends when Chilton was around age 75.

“The really wonderful thing about it is that I knew he was approaching 100, and he won two medals in the last games before he died,” Chilton said. “And I just thought that was wonderful, that he stayed active right up till the very end.”

Another friend Chilton met through the senior games and a fellow DHS alumnus is Bob Southerland, who is 83. Since Chilton is older and was a few grades above Southerland in high school, they didn’t know each other well then and weren’t yet friends.

“I didn’t get to know him until we met at the Senior Games one year,” Chilton said. “And it was just by pure chance.”

He said Southerland approached him and said, “I see that you entered 10 or more events. I’m going to start calling you Ironman.”

They started chatting and were astonished when they found they were both from Danville.

“We have become really good friends,” Chilton said. “We correspond. We talk on the phone.”

Southerland currently lives in Cookeville, Tennessee. He competes not only in the Kentucky Senior Games but also the Tennessee games — which he won 10 medals in this year — as well as some national track and field events and an international weightlifting competition he won a gold medal in this month.

In the Kentucky Senior Games Southerland won 10 medals — one silver and nine gold — in the 50-meter dash, 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, high jump, long jump, triple jump, pole vault, shot put, javelin and discus.

He did a little track and field in high school, from which he graduated in 1956, and has been doing the senior games for about 30 years.

His biggest motivation in getting involved was the fact that both his father and grandfather in their 50s or 60s had deteriorating health, and by the time they were 75 they were under constant care. He said his father had habits that took a toll on his health, but his grandfather made a living “behind a team of horses” on 35 acres in Lincoln County and never touched a cigarette or alcohol, yet ended up in the same condition. That’s what started Southerland’s interest in keeping himself active.

Another thing that keeps him interested is the people he meets. He said on the field everyone looks the same and is dressed the same and is united in their common interest, but they all have very different backgrounds.

“It’s amazing what some of these folks have accomplished in their work pursuits, their professions, that sort of thing, you would totally not expect, and that’s always fun, to discover the talents that people have,” he said.