As he trudged along an asphalt hiking trail, John Ayer looked up andsaw the orange pylons marking the finish line 200 yards ahead.

The 72-year-old physician had swam 400 meters and biked a little more than 12 miles.

Now he was about to complete the 3-mile run, the final leg of thetriathlon at the U.S. National Senior Sports Classic III here.

More than two hours earlier, Ayer and 126 others plunged into a small lake to start the event. The din created by the swimmers churning up the cool water reverberated throughout Green Lakes State Park.

As Ayer neared the orange pylons, the air was silent -- except for the sound of his metal crutches against the asphalt.

Seven months ago, Ayer snapped the femur of his right leg in a downhill skiing accident.Though his leg wasn't completed healed, Ayer refused to withdraw from Wednesday's triathlon.

The leg was better, to be sure, said Ayer, a resident of Skaneateles, N.Y. The cast had been removed and he said he could walk on the leg with little difficulty. He would have no trouble participating if he simply used crutches during the running portion, because the leg was weakened and still sore.

But Ayer's lower leg was visibly red and swollen, marked by streaks of purple frombroken blood vessels. As he limped toward the orange pylons, the legthrobbed.

Why not refrain from competition until the injury is completely healed?

"By that time, you'd be too weak to do anything, " a smiling Ayer said after the race. "You gotta keep going."

Mostwould applaud Ayer's courage, others might question his prudence. However, as the affable doctor hobbled along the tree-lined trail toward the finish line, no one could help but be moved by the human determination he radiated.

More than 5,000 athletes, age 55 and older, from across the nation -- including 10 from Carroll -- descended upon Syracuse for the six-day event, which featured competition in 18 events. It might sound like little more than a gang of elderly recreationenthusiasts going away for a week to play picnic games.

But it was much more than that.

Ayer's performance in the triathlon came onthe final day of competition, but by then the exhibitions of will and determination by the athletes had piled up all over this quiet cityin upstate New York.

For example:

* Eighty-one-year-old Arda Perkins of Dearborn, Mich., went blind 20 years ago, and yet competes in race-walking and swimming events. Three weeks before the games shecame down with pneumonia and nine days ago fell and injured her kneecap.

* Cliff Mengel, 70, had his leg amputated in March, but stillpitches for his softball team from Holland, Pa. Last week, he and his friend, 99-year-old swimmer John Fleck, also overcame the theft of Mengel's car, which has special pedals.

"Oh, it's just another inconvenience, " Mengel told a local newspaper. Syracuse police recovered the car and arrested four men in connection with the theft.

* Five years ago, 65-year-old Jim Law, a Baltimore native, was told by his doctor that his cholesterol level was 322, some 120 points higher than the average for his age. He gave up junk food and his two-packs-a-day cigarette habit, and started training. Now Law is the nation's fastest man in the 60-64 age bracket, holding records in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter dashes.

"I didn't want to die, " said Law, now ofCharlotte, N.C.

As impressive as the display of resolve was the surprising competitiveness shown by the senior athletes. Some are former Olympians and pro athletes, who possess innate competitiveness. Others simply want to perform well.

New Windsor resident Bill Thomas, 63, turned in his best time ever in the triathlon. To what did he attribute that feat?

"Desire," he said. "Some people say you shouldn't be so competitive at this age. But I'm not content to come in last."

Perhaps most importantly, however, the seniors displayed a trait that's sadly absent from popular athletics today -- sportsmanship.It was a stirring sight to watch the seniors go at it with all they could muster, then seek out their opponents with congratulations and praise. Often the expressions of good will seemed more important thanthe athletics.

"If you're an SOB at this age, you might as well forget it, " said Bob Hunter of Bowie, Prince George's County, a member of the softball team that won the silver medal in the 65-and-older age bracket. "You learn a lot by now."

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