Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Novi man, 91, making strides to inspire seniors to retain fitness

By: Charity Meier | Novi Note | Published August 8, 2023

 Freeman wears a medal around his neck and holds up the fourth-place ribbon that he earned in the 400 meter dash at the 2023 National Senior Olympics in Pittsburgh.

Freeman wears a medal around his neck and holds up the fourth-place ribbon that he earned in the 400 meter dash at the 2023 National Senior Olympics in Pittsburgh.

Photo provided by Sue Flanagan

 Freeman also enjoys bowling and says his career best score is at least 260.

Freeman also enjoys bowling and says his career best score is at least 260.

Photo provided by Sue Flanagan

 Sue Flanagan and her dad, George Freeman, enjoy participating and competing in sports together.

Sue Flanagan and her dad, George Freeman, enjoy participating and competing in sports together.

Photo by Charity Meier

NOVI — George Freeman, of Novi, has qualified for and participated in every National Senior Games event since it was founded in 1985. At 91, he refuses to let age slow him down and is continuing to make strides in sports, particularly running and bowling.

“I’m what they call a slow-twitch athlete. I can’t run fast, but I can run a long ways,” he said.

Freeman, a retired physical education instructor, recalled that he started to develop a passion for running at a young age. He said that he grew up on a farm in the rural town of South Byron, New York. He said there was a law that if you lived under a mile from the school, you had to find your own way there. Since he lived just shy of a mile from the school, and his family didn’t own a car, he and his six siblings had to run or walk there.

“I’m the only one that ran, and of the seven siblings, the only one that’s still alive other than me is my youngest sister,” said Freeman.

However, when he was young, he nearly perished when he got hit by a car after disobeying his mom and running outside and into the road during a storm. He said the doctor told his parents that he was probably not going to make it.

“I remember turning to them and shouting, ‘I’m too young to die,’ and as it turned out, I was,” Freeman said with a laugh.

Although he lived to tell the tale, the car accident left him with hearing loss, and in the early part of the 20th century, hearing aids “were awful,” Freeman said. However, his lack of hearing helped to mold him into a “model student,” as he had to sit near the front of the classroom to hear his teachers.  He went on to graduate from the State University of New York at Brockport, aka the “teacher’s college.”

He was married to his wife, Cathy, for 42 years, until she passed away in 2002. Together they had four children: three girls and a boy. He said all of his children were gifted athletes, and he recalled that his daughters set high school track records. His son was killed in an automobile accident.

“What a wife I married. Wow. She was something else. You talk about happiness — that was it,” said Freeman.

Freeman has run 27 marathons, including competing in the Boston Marathon six times. Freeman recalled that his father had mentioned one day during his youth that he wanted to run the Boston Marathon.

“I never forgot it,” said Freeman.

Freeman’s daughter Sue Flanagan said that her father has inspired many people to go into running, especially in their family — including herself.

“When I ran my first marathon, Dad met me at mile 20 to help me get through the next 5 miles,” Flanagan recalled.

When asked if he was going to compete in the Boston Marathon again, Freeman’s response was no. He said those days are over. Flanagan said that a marathon for her father these days is once around a track. Freeman looks back fondly at his running career.

“I enjoyed it, and there’s another reason I was pretty good at it. It was the only thing I was really pretty good at. Not that I’m not athletic and all that stuff, but I could beat a lot of people because of the distance,” said Freeman.

He said he got into bowling after he retired at age 55. He said that it was a popular sport in small towns, as it gave everybody something to do during the winter. He said he found he was pretty good at it. He doesn’t recall his best score but could easily say it was at least a 260 “without having to go to confession.”

Freeman advises people to make exercise a habit, so much so that when the weather is bad they’ll feel disappointed not to be able to go out to run or walk and must find some other exercise to do.

This was the case for Freeman, a resident of Fox Run Senior Living. During the pandemic he was known to get up at 6:30 a.m. to run/walk the halls, a habit he continues today. He said it is a good place for seniors to run, as the halls are carpeted, which acts as a soft pad, should one fall.

Flannigan recalled that her father, just before the shutdown, asked her to bring him weights.  She said her father is into several sports, along with running and bowling, including golf.

“Exercise itself is a habit, and it’s a great habit,” Freeman said.

Although a native of New York state, Freeman moved to Michigan in 2019 to be near Flanagan, and they compete in several sports together in local parks and recreation leagues and in the Senior Olympics.

“When I first moved, I thought I was too young for this place, and I was in my 80s. A few months later, I changed my mind, and I feel that Fox Run is a proving ground for Heaven, and it is. They are nice to each other, and why wouldn’t you be? You only got so many more days on earth; you’re not going to try to come up with a lot of enemies,” Freeman said with a laugh.

Freeman, a devout Catholic, attributes his longevity to a strong faith in God.

“You have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen after you lay your head down forever,” he said. “You can get through a lot of stuff with faith.”

Flanagan said her father’s faith has gotten him through some hard times, along with “a lot of endorphins on a long run.”

For those who have not yet developed good fitness habits, Freeman recommends getting a nutritionist first and then to just start walking at one’s own pace.

“I think a lot of it is the diet,” said Freeman.

Flanagan pointed out that her husband has lost 18 pounds in less than three months by cutting sugar out of his diet and walking a mile and a half a day.

Freeman was named as one of 25 Humana Game Changers this year. He said that it is an honor to be selected.

“What a really amazing gentleman. What he has been able to contribute, and just keep such a healthy  lifestyle,” said Julie Mascari, of Humana.

Mascari said Freeman was selected because of his career as a physical education teacher and sports coach, and because of his personal fitness journey.

“We selected him as a Game Changer because he really is an example of how staying active contributes to long-term health and well-being,” Mascari said. “We recognized that with him specifically; by staying active, it just keeps you moving and healthy.”

“His lifestyle has influenced a lot of people not just in our family, but also when he was teaching,” Flanagan said.

Freeman said his proudest moment is taking a small track team of six boys to a team of 50 boys in nine years and implementing a girls program at the school.

Flanagan said that when people see her father out running, they often will stop and ask him for a hug.

“You’re unusual because you are doing things consistently, like running five flights of stairs to your apartment. So I think people notice,” Flanagan said to her father. “Dad said, ‘I don’t get why people want to interview me; it’s pretty ordinary.’ I said, ‘Dad, it’s extraordinary.’

“It’s his consistency,” Flannagan said of what makes her dad so inspirational. “He doesn’t preach. He doesn’t tell you what to do. He looks fit. He’s aging well. Everybody wants it. Everybody is so inspired. They see him out on the golf course hitting these drives. You know we all want it. We all want to age like that. We don’t want to be aging in a rocking chair not able to move. It’s like, ‘How did Dad get there?’ He moved. Every day he moved.”

On July 11, Freeman placed fourth in the nation in the 90-94 age group in the 400 meter dash at the National Senior Games.