The running man
SUN CITY – If you are among the many lucky Sun Citians who have seen Otto Volkmann jogging around the bike paths, be advised that you are not just watching any ordinary fitness buff.
You are watching an elite, multi-sport athlete who has repeatedly been honored on two continents for his amazing exploits at the highest competitive levels in soccer and distance running. He lives in a retirement community, so he can keep doing what he has been doing for 66 years. Retiring to a rocking chair would be the worst nightmare of this man’s life.
Otto runs for fun because it’s his favorite activity, but, until shortly after he came to Sun City in 2000, he did it primarily to compete and win and win and win. First, he was a soccer player who excelled because he was a runner. Later, he became an elite runner who also played soccer.
Any soccer or track coach will tell you that running and soccer go together like rock concerts and teenagers. Soccer players need the endurance and strong legs that come from miles and miles of running, and vice versa.
“I am blessed with a healthy body, strong legs, and a huge desire to run,” he says. “In my hometown of Heuchelheim, Germany, I started kicking a soccer ball around when I was 10 years old, right after World War II. I soon learned that running was one of the best ways to train for soccer. I realized I liked running just as much. But first, I focused on soccer, because it was a more popular sport.”
For almost seven decades, he has been kicking and running.
He has played on soccer teams in Europe and America that have won dozens of local and international championships. He is listed as a goal scorer in most of the games in which he has played. Twenty years ago, he lost count of the exact number of 5k, 10k, marathon, and road races he has won. His name is in the Guinness Book of World records. In 1977, he and some teammates set the world running record in a 100-mile relay. When Otto runs, he doesn’t stop at just a few miles.
On January 22, 2011, he was inducted into the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) nation Hall of Fame. “It was one of the best highlights of my life,” he said.
He has run alongside many internationally acclaimed runners, including Bill Rodgers, five-time winner of the Boston Marathon; and Uta Pippig, who won the New York City, Boston, and Berlin Marathons six times in the ‘90s. His Hansa and Schwaben club soccer teams in Chicago dominated the professional soccer leagues in the U.S.A. for a decade in the 1960s.
“Soccer is a club sport in Europe,” he said. “When I was young, it wasn’t played in schools like it is in America now. I was fortunate to play on some of the best clubs in Germany. Coaches and club officials paid us some money but also helped us get jobs and helped provide for our housing. When I was 24, in 1959, I saw an ad in Sports Illustrated magazine for soccer players in America. I had always wanted to come to America, so I emigrated in 1959, assisted by my soccer coaches as sponsors. The ad was placed by a man from Racine, Wisconsin, so I came to Chicago.”
He joined the Hansa Club of Chicago, whose roster also included many American and international Olympians. Hansa quickly became a soccer power. Along the way, Otto got a job at Central Steel and Wire in Chicago and bought a home in Westchester in the western suburbs. Not long after arriving in Chicago, he met his future wife, Ingrid, who was the daughter of a soccer player. “I became a shop foreman at Central Steel and Wire and worked there for 37 years,” Otto said.
Hansa Chicago won the National League championship in 1965, with Otto as one of its stars. He became famous for his aggressiveness, athleticism, and speed on a soccer field.
He retired from soccer in 1967 and turned to coaching young players in youth leagues and running in U.S. Masters and CARA races all over the nation. He is believed to hold the all-time CARA record for wins in senior races in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A four-inch-thick scrapbook he has created contains page after page of “10 best performances” race results in the 50-54 and 55-59 age groups. In 2001, at age 66, he set a course record in the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Kemper Chicago 10k race.
Today, he runs 40 miles a week, on average, on the bike paths of Sun City. He usually does it at 6-7 a.m. “I have been blessed with a healthy body, but you have to work to keep it that way,” he said. “I spend at least one hour each day in exercise, and I keep active all the time. I try to eat in a healthy way, but I believe most of good health is activity and exercise.
He is one of the best models of good health in a community that is full of them.
A five-mile jog at 6 a.m., anyone?