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Winter 2000

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Running free:
Top senior athlete goes for the gold—and for her true self

by Kim Smithgall

Ann Hammel Kahl '51 powers through the biking phase of the 1995 "Mrs. T" triathlon in Chicago.

When Ann Hammel Kahl ’51 was a young child, relatives asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. "A teacher? A nurse? A mommy?" Kahl’s response surprised them: "I want to be a baseball player."

Kahl was always a tomboy. "I saw that boys had a much better life. They were given much more freedom. They could run, throw balls, and play," she remembers. "Baseball seemed much more appealing than sitting around in a pretty dress."

While her dreams of becoming a baseball player didn’t pan out, the freedom to run and participate in sports did . . . it just took 45 years to get started. Now, at age 70, Kahl is recognized as a top triathlete and runner in her age group.

The recognition for her athletic ability follows a long and successful career as an artist. After graduating from Skidmore with an art degree, she did illustration and layout work for a small Washington, D.C., studio. Later, she helped her father run his restaurant, an experience she calls "the school of hard knocks." There, she remembers, "I really learned how to run a business and how to deal with all types of people." She met her future husband, Norman, while working at the restaurant, so there were some definite advantages to the job. Kahl also worked in the graphics department of a CBS broadcasting affiliate, then as a freelance artist while she raised their son, Chris. When Norman took early retirement from the editorial staff of the Washington Star in 1975, Ann knew she needed a creative business outlet that the couple could engage in together.

"I saw a magazine ad for a button-making machine for $35. We bought it and started making political campaign buttons," she says. "We did really well through two elections and were able to sell the business and make enough money to build a home in Florida."

Kahl continued freelancing as an artist, further enhancing the watercolor and calligraphy skills she had learned at Skidmore. Then, as as she was easing into retirement, the pent-up athletic energy of her childhood began to make its presence known. "I started running when I was 51 years old. At first, I think it was a symbol of running away from life’s problems," she muses, adding, "It turned out to be really therapeutic."

"I will not sit still for the aging process."

Two weeks after beginning to train with the Sun State Striders, a running team consisting primarily of girls under 16, Kahl entered her first race. She finished in second place in her age group. "It was one of the few times I came in second," Kahl says, with a small twinge of defeat in her voice.

She typically finishes first.

It’s this kind of competitive, positive drive that has characterized Kahl throughout her life, especially during her athletic years. She has earned medals and media coverage throughout the South, the United States, and the world for her accomplishments. Along with winning many local and regional footraces and triathlons (grueling three-phase races of swimming, biking, and running), Kahl medaled in the World Triathlon Championships in 1995 and in the Senior Olympic Games in 1997.

But, for Kahl, laurels are not to be rested on. She’s now beginning new athletic pursuits: the throwing sports of javelin, discus, and shot put. And in the meantime, she continues training every day, with a regimen that includes running six to seven miles every other day. She says, "There’s a great feeling when you’re running; it’s the endorphins. And then there’s the feeling of fitness–the fact that your body is capable of doing what you want it to do."

When she’s not running, Kahl swims, bikes, participates in yoga, and lifts weights. "I will not sit still for the aging process," she proclaims. "I do not purchase any extra health insurance. Instead, I pay a personal trainer at the gym–that’s my insurance."

The winner! Kahl takes first place in a Florida road race last spring.

Kahl considers this to be the best time in her life. "It’s all summed up in one word–freedom. It’s the freedom to do what I want and have a good time. It’s the freedom to be myself," she comments.

Her ability to enjoy this freedom is something she attributes, in part, to the influences of former Skidmore art professor John Heins. "I saw things in a different light after working with him," she recalls. "He used to call me Lady Ann because I was so quiet. He took the time to build my confidence, though. He helped me change my perception of myself."

Now picture the 70-year old Skidmorean emerging from a lake after swimming a mile, leaping off her bike upon completion of 25 miles, and triumphantly breaking through the finish-line tape after running six miles.

"I doubt anyone would call me Lady Ann today," Kahl rightfully concludes.

Kim Smithgall is a communications coordinator and freelance writer-editor in Saratoga Springs.

Photos courtesy of Ann Kahl '51


© 2000 Skidmore College