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|| News Item: Posted 2009-08-13

Pursuing the Senior Underground
Behind the book: The Wonder Years

By Rick Rickman

Photo by Rick Rickman

Photo by Rick Rickman

A senior competitor releases the winning throw for his age group.
Every photographer always talks about doing a book. We all have this romantic notion that a book could be our defining body of work or perhaps our ticket to fame. For me, getting a book published has turned out to be something else entirely: sheer joy. The project that has been my delight and obsession for so many years has finally come to life.

On June 27, 2009, The Wonder Years: Portraits of Athletes Who Never Slow Down went on sale on It was in bookstores across the country by July 20, just in time for this summer's National Senior Games in the Bay Area. I still can't believe that this is actually happening. The reason I'm in such a state of disbelief is that I've been working on this project for more than two decades.

The Wonder Years is a collection of portraits and stories about the extraordinary senior adventurers and amateur athletes I've met in my travels. Over the years I've squeezed in shoots between magazine assignments and teaching photography at Brooks Institute in Ventura. The project has been such an obsession with me that I've almost bankrupted myself on several occasions when I found an interesting new subject in some remote corner of the country. I'd go, even if I really didn't have the money to go. Crazy I know!

The Wonder Years celebrates ordinary people from all sorts of backgrounds who have learned how to live life to the fullest each and every day. Some find their challenges in the gym or on the track. Others surf, swim, vault, or even rope cattle. All of them show us that aging isn't something to fear - it's a chance to reinvent yourself as many times as you dare,

This project started in earnest in 1989 when I attended the National Senior Games for the first time. Sometime afterward, I was talking to a group of students about photography and a high school girl asked about the senior athletes in my pictures. She wanted to know, "Don't you feel guilty photographing old people doing things that might hurt them?" I was taken aback by the question and it hit home that many people in this country have twisted and stereotypical ideas about aging. My own views about aging had been shaped by watching my amazing grandfather, who worked at learning new things and being physically active his entire life. Grandpa Jake lived to a healthy age of ninety-four and never really slowed down.

Photo by Rick Rickman

Photo by Rick Rickman

Moments before the start of the Triathelon Sister Madonna Buder, The Running Nun, does a last second adjustment to her goggles.
I continued my research on senior athletes, reading everything I could get my hands on, using my magazine assignments on unrelated topics as fact-finding missions and bugging my friends to keep their eyes out for new subjects I could photograph. I began to document something quite remarkable -- a growing senior underground of athletes competing across all fifty states. I was fascinated with the energetic and inspiring people I met (and whose stories would eventually make up "The Wonder Years"). But I was frustrated, too. During the early years of my research, few magazine editors were interested in pieces about older athletes. So most of my work was self-funded. I continued taking photographs, and I even learned to surf after Doug Craig, one of Southern California's legendary senior surfers, refused to let me take his picture until I could stand up on a board in the water. (I'm still surfing, thanks to Doug.)

My senior portfolio kept growing and I eventually became the official photographer for the National Senior Games. Then last year I teamed up with Donna Wares, a former newspaper colleague, author and book editor who helped me craft a book proposal. The first thing I learned about book publishing is that you need a strong and timely proposal to get anywhere.

Part of our book research involved browsing the bookstores and finding that there were no other books like The Wonder Years on the market. The Baby Boomer generation was moving headlong into retirement, yet books about older people living well and engaged in healthy lifestyles were non-existent on the shelves.

We put together a proposal that showcased my photographs and also captured the stories of the extraordinary seniors that I met in my travels and many memorable moments from the National Senior Games. We also documented a compelling trend: By 2008, an estimated 350,000 men and women across the nation were competing at the local and state levels for a chance to compete in the National Games, which are held every two years and offer medals in eighteen sports. Two-thirds of those participants had never been physically active before age 50. Many of those athletes are women who had grown up in an era before Title IX when women were denied opportunities to compete on the diamond, the track and the court.

Once the proposal was done, Donna and I decided to pitch the book to our first choice publisher -- Chronicle Books, which is based in San Francisco (the site of the upcoming 2009 Senior Games) and produces some of the most visually beautiful books anywhere. Donna was able to use her publishing contacts to get our proposal into the hands of a terrific editor at Chronicle.

Photo by Rick Rickman

Photo by Rick Rickman

"I'm here to compete and bring home the gold. " love to see how much I can improve." Margaret Hinton is the quintessential competitor.
For The Wonder Years timing and reaching out to the right editor made all the difference. Editor Carey Jones loved the proposal and the gallery of photos we submitted and committed to the project within a few weeks. We never submitted the book anywhere else. We knew The Wonder Years had found the right home.

I recently had a long chat with Carey, our original editor at Chronicle, and asked what first drew her to the project. She told me that when she read the proposal she was attracted by the fact that this book was completely different from anything else Chronicle had previously done. She said also she liked that the book addressed an important topic -- how the Baby Boom generation would proceed into the future - in a positive, uplifting and original way. Those were the first things that made her believe this was a book that Chronicle would want to publish.

Carey also mentioned that she and the other editors at Chronicle had been looking for ways to connect with older readers. Chronicle Books, she said, had always been good at reaching the 20-and 30-something markets but also wanted to appeal to more readers in the 40-, 50-, and 60-year-old age groups.

Originally Carey proposed the book to Chronicle's Art and Design section because the book was mostly photographs. However, some of her colleagues suggested that The Wonder Years should go into another section called "One & Others," which deals with lifestyles and sociology.

I told Carey that many photographers felt lost when it came to book publishing, and that they seldom saw any rhyme or reason to what happens. She laughed and said that this is also true for people in the industry. "Book publishing is a big gamble, " she said, adding that it often takes one editor who feels strongly about a title to push it through.

"That's really what happened with your book," she said. "I believed in your proposal, I thought it was upbeat and timely and I'm very fond of books that deal with exercise and healthy living."

Donna and I had little time to celebrate our book deal. Reality hit in a hurry.

Chronicle wanted all the pictures and a completed manuscript in what amounted to 60 days. There were several key athletes I hadn't yet photograph and we still needed to do all of the interviews.

I think at some level there was a divine providence at work because somehow the final pieces all fell into place. For years I had wanted to connect with Sister Madonna Buder, a Catholic nun in Spokane who has competed in the Kona Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii for the past twenty years and keeps blazing new trails for women athletes over seventy. I finally reached Sister Madonna by telephone and found out that she would be competing in a Washington state triathlon the following week. I hung up, called the airline and arranged for a trip. Donna and I were on our way to Spokane and spent an amazing weekend with Sister Madonna.

Photo by
We both shifted into high gear. None of the stories had been written yet. We needed to contact dozens of people, some of whom I hadn't spoken with in several years. All of a sudden, my life was crazed. I didn't get more than a few hours of sleep many nights. I also was teaching full time, raising a 14 year-old daughter, and trying to keep my freelance career on track going into an Olympic year.

Somehow, we managed to make our first copy and photography deadline before I had to leave in August for the Beijing Olympics. During my trip, Donna called with the good news that she had enlisted Olympic winner Peggy Fleming to write the foreword to The Wonder Years and I was thrilled. Amazingly the book had come together, even with our impossible deadline.

Years ago I had spoken with photographers Sam Abel and David Harvey about the most difficult part about doing a book. Both men told talked about the problem of designers butchering pictures with mindless crops or errant design ideas. Others had shared similar stories with me, so needless to say I was more than a little paranoid about the publishing process. Those fears were baseless with Chronicle. The publisher's designers were superb. I am so pleased with the design of the book and with the respectful way they treated both the photographs and the stories. I was able to suggest photo changes along the way and those changes were easily made. The process was painless. All in all, the project was a delight.

Best of all, our accelerated deadline made it possible for The Wonder Years to hit the bookstores this summer, just as the National Senior Games landed on the West Coast for the very first time on the campus of Stanford University. Of course, I was photographing the games in August. I had a great time seeing everyone again.

(Rick Rickman is based in Southern California and currently teaches photojournalism at Brooks Institute of Photography. You can view his work at his member page at: and at his personal website:

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