Marty Wasserman fell off his horse.

Sitting in the screened-in porch of his Ellicott City home on Monday, he told a story of how he was riding his horse, T, last summer when the animal was startled by a noise and threw him.

At 80, any fall can be a disaster. But this was a full-on flop to the ground from the saddle of a tall bay. Wasserman injured his face and his ribs.

He got back to the house and decided to check himself out in the mirror. That’s when he saw something that surprised him.

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“I realized that I’d really put on a lot of weight,” said Wasserman, who served as Maryland’s secretary of health from 1995 to 1999.

At 5-foot-8, he weighed 195 pounds. A swimmer, bicyclist, kayaker and horseback rider, he shares an active lifestyle with his wife, fellow physician Barbara Wasserman. But time slows your body and can add on pounds.

That reflection convinced Wasserman to lose 20 pounds so he could wriggle back into the wetsuit that he wore when, as state health secretary, he participated in his first Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. When the annual 4.4-mile swim from Sandy Point State Park near Annapolis to Kent Island begins Sunday, it will be Wasserman’s 25th crossing.

“Shortly after that, Barbara and I went to a conference sponsored by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine on international nutrition and they talked about all of the health aspects of a vegan diet,” Wasserman said. “It had everything — weight loss and good health and got you off medications. It was amazing.”

So, at 80, Wasserman went vegan.

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I’m telling you this story not because I want you to go vegan or swim the bay. No, I wanted you to know about Marty Wasserman because I turned 65 this week.

I don’t feel that old — well, most days. I work in a profession mostly populated by people young enough to be my children — ah hell, my grandchildren.

There’s no fooling myself, this is the final quarter of my life. To explore that, I drove to Howard County on my birthday to talk with Wasserman. He’s a stereotype-defying type, even for a lifelong fitness nut and healthy life crusader.

I wanted to ask him, what does it mean to be old?

“I get up more slowly now,” Wasserman said. “I hold the banister when I’m walking. As I said, I fell off the horse. … But Barbara and I bike and we kayak and horseback ride.”

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This is more than a question of physical fitness, though. And it’s more than Marty and me shooting the breeze over whether having bacon at breakfast is equivalent to puffing away on cigarettes.

Both leading candidates for president are undeniably old. President Joe Biden is only a year younger than Wasserman, and former President Donald Trump is 76.

Biden recently tripped over a sandbag while leaving the Air Force Academy commencement, and everyone with a heart held their breath until it was clear that he was OK. Trump famously prefers junk food and looks so unhealthy I marvel that he didn’t have a massive coronary Thursday night while crafting those crazy-angry Truth Social posts about being indicted.

We’re at a point where the aged — and lord, my cherry-red AARP card reminds me that I’m in that group — can have productive lives much longer than when Boomers were growing up. Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS Evening News anchor, was forced to retire in 1981 when he turned 65.

Working longer is so much more routine now that it can be hard to realize when it’s time to pack it in and give someone else a turn at your job.

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Martin Wasserman emerging from the water during last year's Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. He was the oldest swimmer to finish and this year will be the oldest swimmer to take off Sunday from Sandy Point.
Marty Wasserman emerging from the water during last year’s Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. He weighed 195 pounds. Sunday, he'll enter the water at 167 pounds. (Courtesy of Martin Wasserman)

Not everyone faces this fortunate conundrum.

Wasserman and I are part of a privileged demographic. We’re white, middle-class or maybe affluent, well-educated men. We’ve been given the resources to pursue good health. Not everyone can afford to retire. Not everybody can be the guy who goes vegan at 80, the same year he was the oldest swimmer to finish the bay swim.

Even if I can’t match that, I do eat a diet heavy on produce and light on meat. I walked across the Bay Bridge in November.

Aging wasn’t Wasserman’s focus as health secretary. He worked on tobacco as a public health threat. He dealt with flesh-eating bacteria on the Chesapeake Bay.

He wasn’t known for working to address health care inequities that hand Black, brown and poor people the nation’s shortest lifespans

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“I’ve got to say, in looking back on this, there’s been a lot of institutional racism that’s prevented all people from the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, healthy environment, healthy upbringing, healthy economic background, healthy employment and the access to transportation to seek medical care,” he said.

“That’s probably a deeper message than I had 30 years ago when I was the health secretary.”

Last year, the news broke that getting older as an American is getting harder. Life expectancy for women fell from 79.9 to 79.1 years old, while life expectancy for men dropped from 74.2 to 73.2.

COVID is partly to blame, but so is gun violence, the opioid epidemic and the rising cost of health care. “Lots of things that we could control if we had the political will,” Wasserman said.

There’s this old saw that getting older is better than the alternative. I belong to this great social club where the vast majority of the members have lots of gray hair. That doesn’t really bother me so much as the fact that I fit in.

I suppose I could complain about having to apply for Medicare, that finding my birth year in any drop-down menu is now a hard day’s night or that my red beard has gone almost fully white.

Getting older, I guess, is just like the rest of life. It is what you make it. I’m incredibly privileged to be a working journalist and have a family that loves me. Complaining feels like a waste of time.

So, happy 65th birthday to me.

There will be lots of swimmers in their 60s and 70s Sunday in both the cross-bay swim and the 1-mile swim along the shore at Sandy Point.

Jason Chance, race director for the swim, said organizers recommend that older swimmers get checked out by their physician before taking part, but that’s the only concession.

“They have to meet the same swim requirements that our youngest swimmers must meet as well, as there are very strict cutoff times so that we can reopen the Chesapeake Bay on time,” he said.

Today, after a year of soy and eggplant instead of meat and of skipping all oils, Wasserman is down to 167 pounds. He’s had lots of help from a network that includes his doctor, his wife, the physicians committee and others.

He’s not only lighter, but his doctor has started taking him off some medications. He thinks his experience offers a pretty clear example to other people at this stage of life.

As a precaution on Sunday, he’ll wear a red swim cap so that safety monitors in kayaks can keep an extra eye on his progress.

And if he admits to craving cookies when he sees them, that wetsuit and Sunday’s swim have been a pretty good incentive for resisting the temptation to break his commitment to going vegan.

“Barbara’s thrilled. I’m thrilled,” Wasserman said. “I tried the wetsuit out a week ago Sunday at a two-mile swim in Reston [Virginia] and it fits well. … It was good to get back into it. So, I’m really excited.”

Martin Wasserman after completing the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim in 1995. At 81, he'll be the oldest swimmer in this year's swim on Sunday and after a year-long vegan diet he'll be wearing the same wetsuit.
Marty Wasserman after completing the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim in 1995. At 81, he'll be the oldest participant in this year’s swim on Sunday, and after a year-long vegan diet, he’ll be wearing the same wetsuit. (Courtesy of Martin Wasserman)

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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