Susan Ryan Tietje, 44
Massapequa, New York
Four years ago, Susan Ryan Tietje was looking for something fun to do with her two girls at their summer home in the Hamptons when a neighbor offered to teach them to surf. The single mom saw it as an opportunity to preserve her bond with her teens, Courtney, 16, and Cameo, 13—a challenge familiar to any parent of adolescents—and to get a little exercise in the process. "The best gift I can give my daughters is a healthy parent," says Susan, who recently completed a high-school teaching degree. "Then success, confidence and everything else just naturally fall into place."
All three managed to catch on quickly, and surfing is now a regular part of their summer. "It's one more thing we can do as a family," Susan says. "We're often sharing secrets while waiting for the next wave."
Surfing is just one of the many sports Susan's tried over the last few years. At 38, she felt envious of other moms who seemed to have more time for themselves. "It's like you have all these glass balls in the air but yours," she says. Determined to make a change, Susan began power walking. That led to running, kayaking, biking, snowshoeing, skiing—you name it.
Along with helping Susan drop 55 pounds, "being sporty" has brought other big rewards. "It's a great mind cleanser and de-compressor," she says. "My energy level is always at its peak after an active day."
The softball player
Helen Barrett, 64
As a kid growing up in New York City, Helen Barrett dreamed of becoming a Brooklyn Dodger. "I was known as the girl who played ball," recalls the retired psychology professor and university dean.
Still, it wasn't until 2005—after marriage, children and a full career in academics—that Helen actually actually joined a team. After watching a documentary about a woman in her 60s who played softball, Helen thought "Hey, I can do that!" The woman played in a league near Helen's hometown of Nashville, so she called the manager and signed up. "I had so much to learn, I didn't know where to start," Helen says, her only experience being the pick-up games of her youth.
She made mistakes early on. And she got hurt—she broke a finger, and a stray ball split her cheek open, requiring plastic surgery. But she didn't quit. "It was like I was getting ready for this all of my life." Now Helen works weekly with a trainer to help keep her injury-free. For Helen, training is the tough part. "I don't really like exercise, but I love sports," she says.
There's something else Helen loves: a newfound strength and confidence. She's now thinking about taking up golf. "You'd think by my age your skills would level out, but I'm getting better," Helen says. "This is a chance to make up for lost time."
Lauren Jacobsen, 54
Los Angeles, California
The first time Lauren Jacobsen's buddies helped her onto a bike five years ago, you wouldn't think world records were in her future. "I fell over twice in five minutes," the interior designer recalls. Still, Lauren stuck with it, even hiring a coach. Early on, she showed a knack for speed, so when her coach broached the idea of racing, the competitor in Lauren took over, and she went to work.
Since then Lauren has set world records for her age group in track racing, where cyclists compete on a steeply banked, 250-meter oval. She has her eyes set on winning the California State Nationals this month, and hopes to beat her own time at the World Masters Championship in Sydney, Australia, in October.
While she didn't set out to be an internationally competitive cyclist, Lauren says she has always had a "passion to excel" in her design business and in other parts of her life. So despite her less-than-stellar debut in the saddle, she's not surprised that she's blossomed into a take-no-prisoners athlete. "You have to push beyond your limits to do more than you think you can," she says.