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Twice Their Age, She Still Thrives

Oklahoma City University's Gomez, at 42, has played at an All-American level in softball.

May 21, 2006|Murray Evans | Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — Softball teams that play against Oklahoma City University praise the ability and instinct of the Stars' shortstop, noting in particular her impressive hand and foot speed.

Then, at game's end, as they line up to shake hands with Lelys Gomez, they notice something else: She's not exactly like the rest of the players on the field. Gomez might fool them with her skills, but it's hard to disguise the lines on her 42-year-old face.

At an age when most athletes long since have called it a career, Gomez is excelling for one of the nation's best small-college teams while competing against players more than two decades younger.

Gomez, from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, went into the weekend batting .353 with two home runs and 35 RBIs and had a .935 fielding percentage. The Sooner Athletic Conference player of the year, Gomez probably will earn NAIA All-America honors this season for a second time, and led Oklahoma City to a 49-5 record and No. 3 ranking entering the national tournament that started Friday in Decatur, Ala.

The Stars have won seven national titles and own a win this season over NCAA tournament-bound Oklahoma.

"When people ask me about my age, it's weird. I don't feel like I'm 42," Gomez said. "I don't know how people who are 42 years old are supposed to feel, but I don't feel like I'm 42."

Neither the NCAA nor the NAIA keeps records on how many athletes 40 or older compete for their schools, but it's safe to say only a handful of people in their fifth decade of life are giving it the old college try.

Among them are 44-year-old Tammy Mahar, the No. 3 golfer on the women's team at NCAA Division I Marshall, and 43-year-old Lori Orthen, who plays at No. 1 singles and doubles on the tennis team at an NAIA school, St. Vincent College of Latrobe, Pa.

Perhaps the most celebrated such athlete in recent years has been Tim Frisby, who walked on to South Carolina's football team in 2004 and caught a pass in a game last season at age 40. Mahar and Frisby each received an exception from the NCAA's eligibility rules. The effect of those rules is that Division I athletes usually are in their late teens or early 20s.

The Olathe, Kan.-based NAIA has less-stringent eligibility rules and no age rule, and in recent years it's been common to see athletes in their late 20s or 30s -- particularly from overseas -- playing for NAIA schools. Phil McSpadden, Oklahoma City's longtime softball coach, has recruited such players before, most notably "Christie" Liu Xu Quing and "Cindy" Yan Fong, members of China's team that won the silver medal in the 1996 Olympics.

Such players "will get their degree," McSpadden said. "They're not hard to coach, because they're a lot hungrier. They're not spoiled. They're over here trying to figure out how the system works because they want to survive it."

Gomez began playing baseball in her native country when she was 6, then took up softball at age 14. Two years later she was on Venezuela's national team -- a squad she's now played on for more than a quarter of a century.

Venezuela's squad played in a tournament in Canada in 2002 that McSpadden attended. As he watched the team play, Gomez -- then 38 -- caught his eye. When McSpadden learned how old Gomez was, and that she didn't speak English, the coach was hesitant.

But there was no denying her talent, so he made her an offer: Come to the U.S., play softball and get an education. Gomez agonized over the decision because she's close to her family, but decided to take the risk.

"I accepted the challenge, because it always was my dream to come here [to the U.S.], to play with the best in the world," Gomez said. "This is my opportunity."

Upon arriving in Oklahoma, Gomez first attended a junior college, Seminole State, to take remedial courses and develop her English skills. She transferred to Oklahoma City before her sophomore season and became a fixture in the Stars' middle infield.

"She still amazes me with some of the stuff that she pulls off," McSpadden said. "Her range is good. Her hands are good. Her intuition is outstanding. Her footwork is phenomenal and that's what makes her a good infielder, and her knowledge of the game, through all those years of experience, is something you hope rubs off onto anyone else who's paying attention.

"You're talking about a middle infielder. You tell me where there's a middle infielder at the age of 42. You do lose something -- she has lost something, I'm sure -- but not enough so that she still couldn't compete for a top-25 [NCAA] Division I team. I can't fathom that they couldn't use her."

Gomez said she's not really sure how she's been able to maintain her reflexes: "Maybe it's God. I don't know. I don't like to run too much anymore. I like lifting weights more, riding bikes, stuff that keeps me in shape."

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