Jimmy “O” O’Hearn’s earliest sporting memories are of playing baseball in the cow pastures of his childhood Wisconsin farm, with a dried cow pie serving as the ball.
At 75 years old, Jimmy O has come a long way since those early days, earning countless medals during his illustrious track and field career.
That career will wrap up this summer as he competes in his 10th and final Senior Olympics in August, along with his final Meijer State Games later this month.
“When I started this 10 years ago, I thought 2-3 years would probably be enough,” Jimmy O said. “That got the competitive juices started again, and I wanted to prove what I was made out of.”
Jimmy O was in the midst off battling prostate cancer, which struck in 2004.
“That was a shock to my life. I thought my life was over,” he admitted. “I went into depression. I kept competing and I just figured, if cancer was going to bring me down, I was going to go down fighting.”
O’Hearn beat cancer, just like he routinely beats competitors on the track.
Now he works side-by-side with the American Cancer Society, and many other organizations, to raise money for those going through the same battles he went through.
“I certainly don’t raise the money that some of the big charities raise,” he said.
With Jimmy O, money isn’t as important as the other influences he’s had on the lives of people across Michigan.
He recently started H.U.G.S. — Helping, Understanding, Giving to Special people. He offers lessons in his new favorite sport — pickleball — to people with mental and physical disabilities, as well as seniors who can’t physically manage other more rigorous sports.
“I set up H.U.G.S. as a non-profit to do things for people with cancer, physically or mentally challenged, abused,” he said. “Teaching them how to play pickleball is so rewarding.”
H.U.G.S. was started in loving memory of Jimmy O’s father, James O’Hearn Sr., who passed away due to heart troubles back in 1980.
“My father had received a triple bypass when he was 62 years old, and his doctor told me he thought he could get my dad 8 more years,” Jimmy O said, his voice choked with emotion. “Then on New Years Day, 1980, I got a call that they had rushed my father (to the hospital). I’m the oldest of 11, and the doctor said two people could come in and spend some time with my dad, so my mother and I went in.
“After about five minutes, my mother walked out, and my dad said to me, ‘Take good care of your mother. Give her a hug for me.’ I never dreamt he was saying goodbye. My dad and I were very close, so H.U.G.S. is serving as a memory to my dad.”
It’s been an emotional year for O’Hearn as he’s come to the realization that his relentless training has begun to take a toll on his 75-year-old body.
“I train 45 weeks out of the year, six days a week, two hours a day, plus fitness classes,” he said. “I feel my body’s starting to wear down, so thanks for the memories, time to move on. I’ll leave it up to the younger guys in their late 60s.
“This year was bittersweet, but the time is right. I need to spend more time on charities, working in my community.”
Jimmy O will first compete in the Michigan State Games, which take place in Grand Rapids from June 21-23.
He’ll also compete in The Masters, an elite competition that draws many former professional athletes. The Masters holds competitions in most states, but not Michigan, so Jimmy O will travel to Illinois for that meet.
Then it’s on to the Senior Olympics, which begin Aug. 11 in Lake Orion.
Jimmy O has given up the 400-meter run, but he’ll still compete in the 50, 100, 200, the long jump and the high jump.
What drives Jimmy O to continue to push himself to new limits? The same thing that pushes all those who compete in these games — an undying competitive nature.
“A few years ago, a guy, 94 years old, Herman, comes up to me and asks, ‘Jimmy, what should be my strategy this year?’ and I said, ‘Herman, you’re the only one running in your age group. You could just walk it.’ But they get those competitive juices flowing and they want to prove it, one last time.”
Those competitive juices have helped Jimmy O earn eight gold medals at the Senior Olympics. He’s a five-time national qualifier in track and field, and was named the 2010 male athlete of the year by the West Michigan Sports Commission. He received the Governor’s Fitness Award that same year.
Jimmy O admits he still gets butterflies each time he steps onto the track for a race.
It’s a feeling he’ll miss, but don’t think he’s going abandon his physical activities once his racing days are over.
“I’ll continue with taekwondo and pickleball,” he said.
His love of pickleball has helped bring the sport —typically played by seniors — to area high schools.
“My pickleball teams play against Spring Lake High School students, Mona Shores, Muskegon Community College. It’s brought two generations together,” he said. “Some of the high school students like to talk trash. I don’t know what it means. I have to find an interpreter to figure out what they’re saying.”
One thing’s for sure. He’s come a long way from swatting at dried-up cow pies on his Wisconsin farm.
Anyone interested in supporting Jimmy O’s missions financially can do by visiting his website, secondwindfitnessfilm.com and clicking on the “Our Sponsors” link.