People of a certain age are often afraid to say how old they are, but not Yvonne Walmsley.
Eighty-six is an age to be thankful for, she says, sporting the latest Beaches Spring Sprint T-shirt just after an aerobic fitness class at the Beaches Rec Centre.
“You tell all your friends, ‘You know, I met this 86 year-old woman and she’s doing fitness,” she said, laughing.
“’Fitness?!’ That’s what they usually say.”
When Walmsley did the 2 km seniors’ walk at the Spring Sprint two weeks ago, she posted a sixth-place time of 27:38, and won first in a much bigger challenge – being the oldest one in running shoes.
High-fiving her at the finish was Joann Knox, another Beaches Rec regular who helped start the Sprint along with Walmsley and a few other volunteers back in 1988.
The whole thing had a shaky start, Knox said. She and Walmsley had signed on to a new fitness centre on Queen Street, only to find it go under.
“I went by on a Friday night, and I saw their shop was being emptied,” she said. “I thought, ‘They’re taking a runner with our money.’”
The next time she saw her, Knox suggested she and Walmsley join the rec centre, which had free fitness classes at the time, and a popular trainer named Len Nelson.
“They would line up around the block to go to his class,” said Knox. Anyone lucky enough to get in had to wear a shoe tag to prove it.
“He taught us how to move, how to bend,” said Walmsley, laughing as she showed off one of Nelson’s dance moves.
In the late 1980s, Walmsley, Knox and a handful of others started a fun run that went west along the boardwalk from D.D. Summerville Pool. Edna Houston called it the “splash and dash.”
But in its first year, volunteers outnumbered runners.
“That was a riot,” Knox said, recalling how they gave a bullhorn to Gene Domagala, a fellow Beaches Rec advisory council member, and wishing him luck.
“Gene went up to Coxwell and Queen and kept bringing people off the street,” she said.
But year by year, what became the Spring Sprint grew to 10, 30, and 200 runners and walkers. The latest run drew 604 people, and several track teams.
Stepping into the Beaches Rec kitchen, staff member Roland Roushias showed off some fruits of the Spring Sprinters’ efforts – new counters and equipment for the cooking classes Chef Gordon Brown holds there for local seven to 13 year-olds.
Outside is an all-weather gazebo, also purchased with Spring Sprint funds, where the young cooks can do prep work in the summer.
“It’s not chocolate-chip cookies and pancakes,” Roushias said. “They learn how to shop, how to prep the food, and it could be chicken, rice, vegetables – these are meals kids will take home, and they’ll share recipes with their parents.”
Next on the advisory council’s shopping list is some all-year patio furniture to install just outside the centre.
That could prove a problem for Walmsley, who already has trouble leaving the rec centre where she has trained for 27 Spring Sprints.
“When my class is over, they laugh at me because I sometimes see people on the street coming and going and they say, ‘Yvonne, you’re still here!” she said.
“I’m not in any hurry. I always take my time because I talk to everybody.”
Anyone looking to follow Walmsley’s footsteps should know she is wide awake by 5 a.m., a habit from her days as a nursing assistant.
They should also know she doesn’t drive, and often used to walk all the way to work at the Women’s College, Toronto General, and Wellesley Central hospitals from her Beach Triangle home.
But it’s not for fitness that she prefers to go by foot.
“When I’m driving with people, I’ve seen their personality change,” she said. “And I said, ‘If this is what I’m going to be like, nuh-uh.’”
Knox also pointed out that Walmsley has the healthiest diet of anyone she knows – lots of fruits, veggies and lean meats, all cooked from scratch.
Walmsley said she is totally amazed by the chefs who make deli lunches in the Foodland grocery at Queen and Lee.
“I find people are so lazy,” she said. “Mind you, it looks very good. I told them, ‘What you do here is like what I do at home.’”
As for her fitness workout, which she goes to three times a week, Walmsley said it’s all about attitude. She often tells older people to go try every class, and just do what they can.
“I’m not there to get down serious,” she said. “Let the younger generation after us do that – we just leave them alone.”
“I like to smile, I like to laugh,” she said. “And a lot of people like to do the same thing.”