by Jonathon Braden
ROCK HILL, S.C. – At 74, Dan Cotter is older than 94 percent of everyone who lived in South Carolina in 2010.
He is also just two years shy of the average life expectancy for males born in the U.S.
On the USTA South Carolina league team that Cotter captains, though, his age brings him a welcome distinction: youngest on the team.
Cotter plays on an adult 75 and over squad with players ages 74 to 87. (He can play on the team because he turns 75 later this year.)
The players, like most 70-somethings and 80-somethings, have had health scares and illnesses and surgeries. They have spent months, sometimes years, away from the game, either rehabbing or resting their bodies.
But Cotter and his teammates have always returned to physical activity. They haven’t let anything, including cancer, back surgery or torn rotator cuffs, keep them from active lives. And they have found tennis, a lifelong sport, the most enjoyable way to stay fit.
“Everybody this age has physical issues,” Cotter said. “They don’t stand around and feel sorry for themselves … They do this in spite of what’s wrong.”
Cotter and his teammates also do it well.
Thursday through Saturday, Cotter’s team will compete for a USTA South Carolina State League Championship on Hilton Head Island. The adult 75 and over championship will feature 17 teams from across the state.
South Carolina is the only state in the nine-state USTA Southern Section that offers formal league play and state championships for its 75 and older players. South Carolina has offered the 75 and over leagues and state championships since the early 2000s, said Bonnie Sue Duncan, state league coordinator for this weekend’s championships.
Seeing players in their 70s and 80s still hustling on court reminds Duncan what tennis is all about. “It is a lifelong sport,” she said.
Tennis has been a lifelong activity for most of Cotter’s team.
He played recreationally as a kid growing up in Oklahoma. About 30 years ago, he started playing USTA league tennis.
It hasn’t always been easy put-aways, though.
In the late 1990s, Cotter went to the doctor complaining about lower back pain.
The doctor told him he would need back surgery because nerves were clogging in his lower back. But first, the doctor told him, he would need quadruple bypass surgery.
Cotter also has had prostate cancer. His shoulders are both bone-on-bone. And he can’t control his left middle finger.
No big deal, he said. “I got all that behind me.”
He also has had to manage his pain and his playing frequency as he’s aged.
Last fall, during a different USTA SC State League Championship, Cotter played four matches in three days, a lot of tennis for any player, but especially a lot for a 74-year-old.
For the next couple days, Cotter could barely get out of bed without piercing pain.
A couple months later, he received an injection of a mixture of steroid and cortisone. He receives the injection a couple times a year.
Despite the pain, Cotter isn’t talking about stopping. Sitting in the Rock Hill Tennis Center, where he plays three times a week with 32 other guys, Cotter smiles often and speaks with pride about his team possibly winning a state league championship and competing in future USTA leagues.
Twice, Cotter has taken adult league tennis teams to USTA National Championships.
“He is the total coordinator,” said Kim Ozmon, tennis coordinator for the City of Rock Hill.
Cotter’s teammate Joe White has had setbacks as well, but White also plans to keep playing as long as he can.
“Tennis is a part of my physical, mental and emotional health plan,” White said.
The way White see it, at 78, he has two options: “I either play tennis every day, or sit on my butt and get fat and old and die younger than I should.”
He has pursued option one, playing tennis.
White plays at least five times a week for a couple hours each time.
He grew up playing a few sports, including tennis, and played football at Wake Forest University.
At Wake Forest, he weighed 168 pounds and could eat whatever he wanted.
Years later, after he got married and he and his wife had a few children, White weighed 220 pounds.
He had to get moving again.
But he liked to run only when he had a ball in his hand, and he had never enjoyed walking to walk.
So he became more serious about tennis. He started playing a couple times a week, mostly on weekends. He also played in the occasional tournament.
“If you sit around and eat and don’t have some type of physical plan,” White said, “then you’re going to die young.”
Playing tennis, he said, is how he plans to live as long as his late parents, who were 96 when they died. Playing tennis is also how White plans to stay mentally alert and healthy. (His late parents had dementia when they died.)
He also plans to live another 20 years by staying off of ladders. Four years ago, White was on an eight-foot ladder, putting away an old sign in his garage, when he fell.
He broke his collarbone; his right shoulder popped out of the socket; and his rotator cuff was detached in three places.
White spent four hours in surgery, and another nine months enduring rehab and pain. But these days, he again has full range of motion.
He said the old injury is why “my serve is 15 miles per hour and my overhead is ugly.”
At the 75 and over championships, White and others might not leave with a championship sign. The 75 and older group can get competitive in South Carolina, with retiree havens such as Hilton Head Island.
But Cotter and White still will be back on the tennis court next week, working on their forehands and backhands, extending their tennis careers – and their lives – with each swing.