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Hurdling for gold at 71-years-young

South Boston resident Frank Lee, a gold medalist in the high hurdles and medalist in four other track events this year at the Coventry Commonwealth Games, has some sound advice for anyone wishing to participate in sports.

Pick a sport or activity you like, stick with it and improve your technique as you go along, but enjoy what you’re doing, he offered.

Obviously sage advice from someone who has missed only three Commonwealth Games since 1998, garnering numerous medals along the way, including gold medals in his specialty, the high hurdles, each time he’s competed.

At age 71, Lee, the defending Virginia age group high hurdles champion in his age group, is one of the oldest competitors at the games, sometimes having to run and hurdles against opponents younger than he.

He medaled in the high hurdles, 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, shot put and discus at the Games, held in July in Roanoke, qualifying him for the State Games next August in Hershey, Pa.

Lee accomplished all these things barely two years after breaking his fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae and his right scapula after a fall at his home.

Physical therapy as a result of those injuries actually helped him while training for the Commonwealth Games this year, Lee acknowledged.

“My range of motion was greatly improved, and it made all the difference in the world,” Lee explained.

Lee began training for the 2012 Commonwealth Games in February.

“I worked out at high school track, the YMCA, and I do some things at home with weights in the basement,” explained Lee.

“I had an eight-week regimen I followed at the track, consisting of stretching, speed work and hurdling, pretty much on my own.”

His times may be slower as he ages, but Lee has learned how to train effectively without injury.

My times are slower, but I have learned to be smarter about training as time goes on,” he said.

Before, he would try and do 11 or 12 sprints where he didn’t need to do but 10, and that one extra sprint would cause injury, he admitted.

“Now, I know when to stop…I know my body better and what I need to eat.  I have to saturate a lot more and earlier,” said Lee.

“It can’t be right before you start or in between,” added Lee, who eats a banana a day and watches his diet.

“I found its really a challenge to keep my weight down, and I’ve found most older athletes need to be conscious of keeping a strong “core,” Lee pointed out.

“Situps, crunches, just find what works for you,” he explained.

“You have to have that core, it makes all the difference in the world.”

With 2012 being an Olympic year, the number of competitors at the Commonwealth Games approached 30,000 athletes, with events at 60 different venues, according to Lee, who hopes to watch the 2016 Summer Olympics in person at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

A member of the Dunbar High School (Lynchburg) Sports Hall of Fame, Bluefield State College (W.Va.) Sports Hall of Fame and South Boston/Halifax County Sports Hall of Fame, Lee has been influenced by a number of sports legends. 

“My role models include my coaches I had in high school,” recalled Lee.  “I’ve met Wilma Rudolph, Ralph Boston, Lee Calhoun, Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe.

“Meeting them early on and following their careers gave me incentive.”

“One still living was very instrumental in my love of sports, particularly hurdles, Herbert Watson.  He coached me in high school at Dunbar.”

Lee, who has mentored youth while an assistant football coach at Mary M. Bethune High School and head boys track coach at Halifax County Middle School, continues that role while working with Halifax County Public Schools.

His was humbled by his selection to his college’s sports hall of fame last month.

“It’s a tremendous thrill and to go in with some guys I played with and knew and be recognized for achievements in something you really like,” said Lee.  

“I’m very much blessed, and I have to say my family and my wife of 47 years, Mattie, has been an inspiration, and a real pillar of strength in my life.”