When Gene Kelly threw the hammer for the final time in college, like most college athletes, he figured it was the very last throw of his life.
He was wrong.
Thirty-four years later, in 2000, three years before he retired from his job as a high school principal, the Stow resident revived his track and field career.
“I had the itch,” he said with a laugh.
Ever since then, he has competed in a handful of meets annually, mainly in Ohio. He has amassed more than 25 medals.
The most recent competition the 76-year-old Kelly took part in was the National Senior Games June 15-20 at the University of New Mexico Track & Field and Soccer Complex in Albuquerque. Competitors must be at least 50 years old; there have been some as old as 96.
Kelly finished sixth in the hammer in the 75-79 age group with a throw of 24.46 meters. He received a ribbon for placing in the top six.
“I’m quite proud of that because the last time I competed at the National Senior Games [in 2013 at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea], I finished in seventh place in the hammer [in the 70-74 age group],” Kelly said.
Kelly also competed in the shot put and javelin in Albuquerque. A previous injury caused him to miss out on competing in the discus.
“In those events, I’m not anywhere near as good as I am in the hammer,” Kelly said. “It felt fantastic to get that ribbon.”
Kelly went up against 15 other hammer throwers. Eight advanced to the finals.
“I was fifth heading into the finals, but this one guy who was eighth moved up to third,” Kelly said.
Kelly qualified for the National Senior Games due to his performance last summer at the Ohio Senior Olympics at Otterbein University in Westerville. He won the gold medal in the hammer.
Kelly’s fabulous track and field career was rewarded June 8 when he was inducted into the Ohio Senior Olympic Hall of Fame.
“I was humbled, definitely humbled,” Kelly said. “I never thought that anything like that would ever be taking place in my life. My daughter Jennifer [Bernay] was the one responsible for nominating me and doing all the paperwork.
“She never said one word to me about it. It was a total surprise. When I went down there and got inducted, I choked up a little. It was really neat.”
Born in Far Rockaway in Queens, New York, Kelly lettered in track and field in both high school and college, the latter at C.W. Post College in Greenvale in Long Island.
In his final meet in college in May 1966, he won the bronze medal in the hammer in the Long Island Championships.
Kelly trains at Kent State University and with an Amateur Athletic Union group that meets every Sunday at Bolich Junior High School in Cuyahoga Falls.
He also officiates throwing events mainly at local college and high school meets. On top of that, he has volunteered as an assistant coach for shot putters and discus throwers at various local high schools for the last 25 years.
When asked what he enjoys the most about competing in track and field, Kelly said it is the fresh air and the camaraderie between the competitors.
“It’s absolutely enjoyable,” he said. “It gives you a good feeling. The people who you’re competing against cheer for you when you throw. One guy said to me at the Nationals in Albuquerque, ‘Gene, you have to get your arm straighter while you throw.’ This is a guy who I beat, but he was trying to help me do better.”
Kelly suffers from polymyalgia rheumatica, an inflammatory disorder that causes muscle pain and stiffness, especially in the shoulders. He also underwent rotator cuff surgeries on each shoulder in the last three years.
But he is a trooper.
“Due to an excellent doctor and great rehab people, I’ve been able to thoroughly recover from the surgeries,” Kelly said. “It has really put a dent in my training, though.”
“He’s an inspiration to all of us,” said his daughter. “He’s just a wonderful person.”
When asked how long he will continue competing in track and field, Kelly’s response should come as no surprise.
“Until I can’t,” he said.