This feature column, highlighting an 82-year-old weightlifter’s positive outlook on life, appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.


January 09, 2004

By Ed Odeven

Everyone encounters setbacks in their lives. It’s how we deal with them that really defines who we are as individuals.

In that case, Mel Katz, an avid weightlifter, is an optimist and a fighter. Always has been, always will be.

After experiencing one of the special weekends of his life in early June 2002, when he set three records for his age group/weight class at the IWF Pan American Masters Championships in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, Katz was part of an ordeal at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.

Katz, who lifted 35 kilograms in the snatch and 50 kg in the clean and jerk for a winning total of 85 kg at the Pan-Am Masters, was diagnosed with colon cancer.

He was 80 years old.

During the next several months, Katz endured six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy at Flagstaff Medical Center. On Sept. 11, 2002, he had a colostomy, followed by six more months of chemotherapy. His perseverance paid off again.

“You’re clear of the cancer right now,” Katz said Thursday, reiterating what doctors told him earlier last year. “It was just plain gone.”

So, looking back, what was that experience like?

“It was harder on my wife than it was on me,” he said. “I went in for chemo and so forth, and my body was in pretty good shape. Outside of it wearing me down a little bit, why, it was really no big deal as far as I was concerned.”

Aside from the chemotherapy doing a number on Katz’s strength — “my vitality has not come back yet,” he said — the weightlifting enthusiast is doing fine. In fact, a whole new chapter is about to begin, a happy one, when Katz will participate in his first competition since being diagnosed with cancer.

Today at the Peaks Weightlifting Club (located at 1819 N. Center St.), lifters from Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Utah will compete in the Peaks Classic Weightlifting Championships. The youngest competitor there will be P.J. Fabritz, who is 12; Katz, now 82, will be the oldest.

Certainly, the emotions will be as ramped up as the adrenaline, but Katz said he’ll have no problem handling it. At least for a while.

“When I get on the platform, why, it might hit me all of a sudden,” he said. “I don’t know, but I’ve been practicing real well all week. If I can just continue what I’ve been doing, I’ll be fine.”

Typically, Katz works out at Peaks four to five times a week for two hours a day.

His warm-up exercises include stretching, lunges and walking on a treadmill. Workouts are divided into two categories: snatch days and clean and jerk days.

As Katz’s head coach and president of Peaks, his son-in-law Joe Kavanagh, explains, “(a snatch is) one movement from the ground over head with arms straight up.” The clean and jerk involves two movements, “from the ground up to the shoulder, and from the shoulder over the head with arms straight.”

And what was it like for Katz to get reacclimated to his workout routine?

“I’ll put it this way: all the time I was taking chemo, I was trying to go in and work out, or exercise anyway,” Katz said. “It really wasn’t (that difficult). I just fell right into it. As far as I’m concerned, nothing is a big deal.”

Even so, Katz attracts attention when he’s pumping iron.

“When Mel goes to lift, people usually stop to watch,” Kavanagh said.

Having Katz at the club also reminds other lifters that mental discipline is an admirable trait in sticking to their workouts.

“It’s inspirational,” Kavanagh said. “Nobody can say they can’t do that if he’s doing that.”

Others share Kavanagh’s sentiments.

“I get frustrated as a lifter sometimes, and everybody who lifts does,” said Peaks lifter Lorrie Whorton, who has won gold medals at national meets. “And I see him out there and I say, ‘What am I whining about?'”

“He’s the kind of individual when there were days that he was in recovery, when he was finishing up chemotherapy and radiation, when you know he felt awful and he looked awful,” Whorton added. “But he was there (at Peaks). Some days he couldn’t do a whole lot. … and it’s hard, but he would be there.

“He’s stubborn. He has this incredible drive to keep going. How many people are 82 years old who have had the medical year that he has had that are doing what he’s doing? He’s the eternal optimist.”

Katz plans on returning to prestigious competitions this year, including the National Masters in Savannah, Ga., April 2-4, and the Pan American Masters, also in Savannah, July 17-18.

So why is weightlifting such an integral part of Katz’s life?

“Most people my age are either dead or they are in front of the TV most of the time,” he said. “When you sit in front of the TV, you’re dying slowly.”