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'He amazes me every time he steps on the track'

November 03, 1988|SIOK-HIAN TAY KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

His wispy white beard blowing in the wind and an impish grin on his face, 74-year-old Chia-Tsung Pao cleared the hurdle with the grace of a dancer.

As the homemade hurdles tottered with the breeze in Alhambra's Almansor Park, the retired psychology professor jogged back for another leap.

Ranked fourth and fifth nationally in his age range in the 400- and 300-meter hurdles respectively, Pao appears a dynamo of energy.

"He amazes me every time he steps on the track," said Marvin Thompson, founder of the Los Angeles Patriots Track and Field Organizing Committee, of which Pao has been a member since its founding in 1985. The club puts on four national meets annually, and Pao has bagged medals in his age category every time, Thompson said.

"(Pao) has a lot of guts," sometimes taking part in six events at one track meet, he added. "When you look at this guy you think he's going to collapse because he's so frail, but he gets in there and he sticks to it."

Seniors track and field competitions have taken Pao to Rome and San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he placed seventh in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1983 World Veterans Games. The international meet for older athletes is the senior citizen's answer to the Olympics, according to Thompson.

Come December Pao will be running in the Fifth Asian Senior Track and Field games in Taiwan.

In between the thrill of racing he spends his days chatting with friends and reading, but he never skips his daily 2-hour workout at Jack LaLanne's in Hollywood.

"This age is better than any age," he declared, because of the freedom he has now. Describing life in America as an exciting learning experience, Pao, who waltzed and tangoed in his younger days, said he has even ventured into discos.

He still wears the traditional Chinese gowns he first started sporting as a professor in Taiwan, which he left 14 years ago.

Coupled with his beard, they make him look as if he wandered off a kung fu movie set onto the streets of Hollywood, where he now lives with his wife. Pao is tickled that strangers constantly pester him to teach them the martial arts--one even held out a blank check--and no one believes he doesn't know how.

Pao moved from Alhambra to Hollywood seven years ago "because it was more exciting." But he is now selling his condominium and plans to move back to the San Gabriel Valley to be closer to his family in Alhambra.

Athletic competition isn't new to Pao.

Born in Anhui in east China, Pao at the age of 24 won gold medals in the 400-meter run and 400-meter hurdles in a regional race covering four provinces along the Yangtze River.

After obtaining a degree in social studies in Szechwan, he continued his athletic training during his 12 years as a counselor in the Chinese air force, where he earned the rank of major. Two years after fleeing to Taiwan during the Communist takeover of the mainland in 1948, Pao was a medalist in the 400-meter hurdles in a national army meet.

He later became director of the mental health department within the Ministry of Education in Taipei, counseling delinquent youths as part of his duties. Pao also lectured part time as a professor of psychology at five universities. He emigrated to the United States after his retirement at 60.

Alumni from those universities now in Los Angeles still invite him to speak at gatherings.

Pao is eager to continue counseling "youths"--anyone under 40--but regrets he is not more proficient in English. "My language cannot show my mind," he lamented.

Soon after arriving here in 1974 he created the "Old Horse" basketball team for men over 70 because he was bored.

"Old men have no place to go, just Chinatown," he explained. His team picked up the gold medal in the 1984 Senior Olympics in Los Angeles.

Pao soon became active in running in the United States, but decided to concentrate on the hurdles again because fewer competitors could manage the jumps.

For practice, he sets up a series of homemade hurdles of sticks and tape in his 50-foot hallway. Pao says he never worries about taking a fall--the hallway is carpeted.

He completed the 400-meter hurdles, his favorite event, in his best time--85 seconds--at a local race last year.

"With hurdles I get medals (with) no problem," Pao said.

He now boasts a colorful collection of at least 150 medals from local and national meets.

"That's me," he said, pointing at a videotaped recording of a race, adding with a grin, "I'm first."

Asked when he thinks he might hang up his sneakers, he replied: "When I can't run, I'll stop."

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