Albuquerque’s Roger Assink didn’t follow the usual path to masters track and field success.
He didn’t run in high school or college, and his move to the track came after people noticed how quickly he ran the base paths in men’s softball.
Four decades and a heart-bypass surgery later, Assink, 70, is still competing in his “second sport” and doing so at a medal-worthy level.
Saturday, Assink qualified for the finals in the men’s 70-74 age division at the USA Track and Field Masters Indoor Championships at the Albuquerque Convention Center.
“It’s a pretty tough field,” Assink said, assessing his competition before his scheduled start.
The masters track and field circuit is a culture unto itself. All of the top competitors in each age division know one another from their cross-country travels to big meets.
For Assink, though, he has winnowed his 2016 masters racing schedule down to the indoor and outdoor nationals.
He still travels with his senior softball team to at least one big tournament a month, although Assink pointed out that he is missing a big tournament this weekend to compete in the indoor nationals.
“It’s a team sport, and you win and lose as a team,” Assink said about softball. “This thing (track and field) makes me so nervous. It’s once a year, and you only have one shot.”
It’s a testament to Assink’s perseverance – and perhaps some obstinacy – that he still runs at a highly competitive level.
In 2009, Assink underwent heart-bypass surgery. That he even knew he had a 90 percentage arterial blockage came as a result of another misfortune.
“In the summer before I had the surgery,” Assink said. “I was involved in a softball collision, and I broke a lot of bones in my face. The doctor who worked on me said that everything was back in place, just don’t move.”
Assink assented, and he didn’t move throughout the late fall and early winter months.
“For three or four months, all I did was sit on the couch,” Assink said. “It was getting close to spring, so I said to myself that it was time to get going.”
With his face healed, Assink – a lifetime fitness enthusiast – began his usual regimen to prepare for the coming softball season.
Assink knew that his sedentary existence the past few months would affect his early workouts, but he fully expected to return to his usual form in a matter of weeks.
To his dismay, he wasn’t able to work out with the same intensity as he did the previous year. In fact, even mild activity was a grind.
“It was killing me,” Assink said. “I couldn’t do anything like I was doing before. I thought I had really lost it.”
After trying different workout methods with no success, Assink visited a doctor. He underwent the usual battery of tests, which revealed his arterial blockage. Bypass surgery was subsequently scheduled within a week.
Assink rehabilitated after his surgery for three months. Even though the gist of his post-surgery workouts involved walking, Assink admitted the return to full strength was much more difficult and slow-going than he expected.
He was also given some disheartening news by his doctor.
“My cardiologist told me that I could never run full speed again,” Assink said. “My wife got online, and she found another doctor who specialized in the rehabilitation of athletes.”
That doctor was less than a mile from Assink’s home, and he said some of the same things as Assink’s previous doctor – but with less conviction.
“He said I could run, but at about 70 percent,” Assink said. “I told him that that would not do. My doctor just shrugged, and I took that to mean ‘Whatever.’ ”
A year after getting his second opinion, Assink competed in the 2011 USATF Masters Indoor Nationals taking third in the 60-meter dash and second in the 200 meters.
Five years later, he has barely lost a step, and he plans to continue to compete for as long as he is able.
“You see that 98-year old (Orville Rogers) out there competing today,” Assink said. “That’s where I want to be in 20 years.”
SATURDAY’S HIGHLIGHTS: An unprecedented five world records went down. In two consecutive races, three 60-meter finishers broke marks.
⋄ Ty Brown, a world record holder in the hurdles, tested his dominance without the obstacles to finish the 60m in 8.11 to break the men’s age 70 mark.
⋄ Bill Collins ran a world masters record of 7.76 in the 60-meter hurdles prelims in the men’s 65 age group before running 7.69 in the final. Collins, who is recovering from Guillain-Barré syndrome, lowered the previous world standard of 7.81, which was set in 2012.
⋄ Joy Upshaw started the day with an American record of 8.48 in the women’s age-55 60 meters before blazing to a 9.71 world record in the 60 hurdles. Both Upshaw and Liz Palmer outran the previous world record as the silver medalist Palmer crossed in 9.82.
⋄ In the women’s age-75s, Kathy Bergen broke a pair of her own records. She went 4 feet, 1¼ inches in the high jump after breaking the age-group’s 60 meters record in 9.49, which she set last year.
⋄ Orville Rogers became the first male-90 athlete in history to run the 1,500, which he finished in 16:32.19.
⋄ Myrle Mensey set an American record in women’s age 65 shot, tossing 30-8½ to take down her own 2015 record of 30-4¾.
⋄ Mary Roman went 25-8¾ in the shot put to break the previous mark of 25-6¼.
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