The torn knee cartilage didn’t slow him down. Neither did the broken ribs, back injury or osteopenia.
Jerry Gammill, a 72-year-old Gig Harbor resident, is the reigning 10-kilometer national champion in his age group. He also holds the state record for those 70-74 years old.
Gammill owes his success to turning negative situations into positives.
Gammill has always been active. He played basketball in high school and intramural sports at Oregon State University. He remained fit and active after school by playing basketball and serving in the Navy Reserve.
He especially loved basketball, but the sport nearly put an end to his active lifestyle.
Twenty years ago, Gammill was playing his son and brother-in-law in what he called a “cutthroat” game of basketball when a collision resulted in a painful sensation in his left knee.
He had torn his meniscus. He tried gutting it out, but he only made the injury worse.
When he finally went to a doctor, he didn’t like what he heard.
“The doctor said I could still run, but probably only in emergencies,” Gammill said.
He found another doctor, an orthopedist, who arthroscopically repaired the knee. Gammill gave up basketball. “That bothered me a lot,” Gammill said.
He remembers going to a family gathering after the surgery. A group of people was playing a game. He wanted to play, but was nervous his knee couldn’t take it. So he sat out and he didn’t like the feeling.
Gammill set a goal to slowly build up strength so he could feel comfortable being active again. He developed a workout routine that kept his legs strong and he made several trips to the gym each week to ride the stationary bike.
For more than a decade his knee was fine. Then, while working on his farm near Olalla, he felt a crack in his back. He’d broken a rib. He didn’t think much of the injury at first. Then while leaning over a fence he heard another crack.
Additionally, he started developing back pain.
“I feel for anybody who has back pain,” Gammill said.
One morning, the pain was so intense, Gammill passed out.
He started working with physical therapists and doing Pilates at the Gig Harbor YMCA to strengthen the muscles to alleviate his back pain.
But doctors told him he had osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis. He was losing bone density and was going to continue to have problems like his broken ribs unless he did something about it.
In 2008, in his mid-60s, he decided to try running after watching his son race in an Ironman triathlon. The impact of running would help increase his bone density and help him overcome osteopenia.
It didn’t take long before he learned he was fast. He won his age group in his first race.
In the years that followed he’s won 54 races. The only race in which he didn’t win his age group was the 10K at the 2011 Senior Games in Houston. He tore his Achilles tendon and finished third.
But he’s not just dominating his age group. He regularly beats much younger runners.
On April 13, he ran the Portland Bridge to Brews 10K, finishing in 46 minutes, 3 seconds. He finished 112th out of 2,077 runners and beat everybody who was older than 53.
He says the key to his success is in the preparation. He previews unfamiliar courses online using Google Earth. He studies the histories of his competition.
“I believe in starting out fast, running with good form and not allowing anyone to pass me in the last 200 yards,” Gammill said.
But most important, he says, is staying healthy. “Do not over train or overstretch,” he said.
Two years ago Gammill injured his right knee. Once again he needed surgery. And once again he didn’t let it slow him down.
He won the 10K at the Senior Games in Cleveland in 2014. Last month he defended that title at the Senior Games in Minnesota.
Gammill plans to keep running, and he hopes to inspire others to overcome the hurdles that might be keeping them from staying active.
His advice: “Go out and do something. Don’t be afraid, but listen to your body.”