In her 90 years, Mary Elizabeth Norckauer has barely sat still.
She’s been a professional ice skater, ballet dancer, champion archer and pistol shooter, baseball player, competitive runner and could soon be a Senior Olympics record holder.
Last month Norckauer competed in nine events in the Louisiana Senior Olympic Games and won nine gold medals. In six track and field events, she broke the standing American records, and her results are pending official approval.
“I like to keep moving. It’s a way of life,” Norckauer said after a two-hour workout at her local YMCA. “Fitness is a way of life. It’s not just something you go and decide to do and go to a fitness club once a week. It’s keeping in condition.”
At least three days a week, Norckauer works out at the A.C. Lewis YMCA in Baton Rouge. Petite with silver hair cut in a short, no-nonsense pixie style, she usually wears a warm-up suit and her running shoes. She’ll warm up in an aerobics class, then lift weights or work on specific sports — running, swimming, even throwing the javelin — depending on the yearlong schedule she’s developed.
She doesn’t compete merely for exercise. Norckauer loves the taste of victory.
“They’re always dangling a carrot,” Norckauer said. “I’ve always been tempted. If they give a medal or some kind of award, I’m there. I don’t care if it’s keeping my yard, keeping my house nice, training someone to do something. Do the best you can no matter what it is.”
Norckauer loves being active. She remembers as a young girl riding her bicycle at 6 a.m. to City Park to swim for hours.
“We called that fun, not training or competing,” she said.
She swam competitively and played softball at Baton Rouge High and went shooting on weekends in the country with her father.
That need for movement led Norckauer to study physical education at LSU. She earned a degree in 1945, then completed her master’s there in 1949 and taught at LSU for 35 years.
After finishing her first degree, Norckauer taught high school in Port Arthur, Texas, and started ice skating at a rink nearby. A few years later, her ice skating skills and years of ballet lessons helped her land a job with a touring company called Holiday on Ice, performing figure skating shows in arenas across the world. She won over the directors when they came to Baton Rouge for a show.
“It was just so glamorous,” Norckauer said.
She spent three years touring, then returned to LSU to teach. Then Holiday on Ice called with an offer to travel the world and coach the skaters.
While her colleagues thought she was crazy for leaving a university teaching position, Norckauer knew it was a unique opportunity. She spent seven more years with the company. “It was wonderful,” she said. “Every day I would think, they’re paying me for this? To see the world and do what I love to do?”
In the late 1950s, she returned to teach at LSU. In 1959 she formed LSU’s Ballet Corps, a dance team that was renamed the Golden Girls. While teaching dance, and swimming and coaching shooting sports, Norckauer did not stop competing. She was an elite shooter, competing at the national level in the 1960s and ’70s and joining the national team in 1974.
In her 60s she decided to try running. She could barely run a mile when she started, so she picked the brains of cross country runners in her classes at LSU and learned to train properly. She started dominating the masters running circuit, winning races across the country.
Then, in the mid-1980s, Norckauer learned she was eligible to compete in the Senior Olympic games and started working on track and field — throwing the javelin and hammer. She learned rowing and competed in swimming, cycling and triathlons. She also combined her running ability and her shooting prowess to excel in a form of the biathlon — running and target shooting.
“Never stop learning,” she said, reflecting on her philosophy. “There is always something new out there. Never stop learning. Never give up and keep going.”
After winning dozens of medals, Norckauer is still pushing herself to be the best of her age group, even if no one competes against her.
This year, when she turned 90, she knew she stood a good chance of breaking a few age group records. And she plans to compete at 95 and beyond.
“As long as I’m able,” she said. “Why stop? If you find something that works for you, just keep moving. In fact, I have goals to 100.”