Andy Steinfeldt, 71, Minnetonka, Minnesota
People are realizing how much more they can do and achieve in the second half of their lives, and that applies to every senior athlete who is challenging aging stereotypes. When we see stories about Senior Games athletes doing unexpected and sometimes extreme things, we take notice.
In 2019, Minnesota distance runner, track & field athlete and basketball player Andy Steinfeldt made international news when he held an abdominal plank for a mind-boggling 38 minutes on his birthday in front of an audience and the media. (Watch here) Sounds improbable for a 71-year-old man to do, but after we had the following jaw-dropping conversation with Andy that reveals all of the challenges he has overcome to reach that point, our rational minds screamed out that what he did truly seems impossible.
Meet “Mr. Impossible.”
The planking demonstration was Andy’s extreme way to show others that they can do more to be healthy and active. It also represents an intense effort to fight his way out of a bad series of life and medical challenges in recent years, and to prove others wrong about what they felt wasn’t possible for him to do.
In our conversation, Andy recounts being emotionally overwhelmed after trouble came in threes –over a span of two years his business crashed, his father died, and his best friend was senselessly murdered. There were times he wondered why he should get out of bed, but he pulled himself together and started to run at the suggestion of his son. He would eventually take off 50 pounds of fat and add 15 pounds of muscle back onto his frame. But then came some daunting medical problems, starting with a blood clot in his leg that required emergency surgery which went awry and left him with only one of three arteries in his right leg functional. He was told he would have permanent challenges with walking, let alone running. Andy refused to believe it and went to work building collateral circulation through extreme workouts. Within a year, Andy was back to running 5Ks, 10Ks and half marathons, and eventually full marathons—which he hadn’t achieved prior to the circulation challenge. In the process, he was able to stimulate his leg to regenerate veins and capillaries and reach full circulation, something his doctors had never seen before. He was called “one in a billion” by the head of sports medicine at Mayo Clinic. “Mr. Impossible” had made his first statement.
Then came prostate cancer with abdominal surgery and later ongoing radiation sessions. Again, there was a serious complication and Andy was subjected to a second major surgery the same day. He was told after this and two more procedures that also weakened his abdomen that he would have to seriously curtail exercises that challenge the abdominal muscles. Once again, he proved everyone wrong, punctuated by his public planking performances. To get there, Andy committed himself to an intensive cross training workout regimen to augment his YMCA fitness classes, running and basketball activity. He even devised what he calls his “Strength and Endurance Trifecta” with repetitions of pushups, handstand pushups, and abdominal planks. The result? A 71-year-old cancer patient with a severely compromised abdomen was defying gravity for longer than any other human his age had recorded before. And he plans to break his own planking record each year on his birthday.
Read on. There’s more you should know about Andy’s difficult early life, and he has launched a singing career that has produced multiple recordings and has taken him to Brazil twice to perform and record. (And “Mr. Impossible” performs and records in six languages!) Andy’s greatest new passion is to share a multimedia motivational presentation of his inspiring story far and wide to all ages. He ends his talks with a series of handstand pushups and a song.
Andy Steinfeldt’s message is not for others to copy his extreme measures; rather, it’s that if he can do what he has done despite his challenges, then all aging adults can do more to be fit and better able to face the challenges that come along – even if they appear impossible to overcome.
Andy, we have to start by asking about the planking achievement that got you international media attention last year.
I’ve set an abdominal planking record for my age two years in a row on my birthday in March, although it wasn’t known to be a record the first time. Afterwards I found out that the record for age 70 and over was just over 36 minutes and I had beat that the first year. Last year, I got the press to come and I beat the previous time by a couple of minutes. I expected to go a lot longer, but I had just finished a course of 38 abdominal radiation treatments, and I think it had zapped some strength. That’s why I am confident that I will break it by a lot next time.
Did Guinness certify the record?
Guinness requires a continuous video of the attempt. I used a regular SLR camera with a video function mounted on a tripod. I discovered that because of some crazy international standard, regular cameras cut video off automatically after 30 minutes. I didn’t know it stopped until after I did the plank. I had an audience and the news media there, but none of them ran continuous video. So it wasn’t accepted by Guinness on that technicality.
I will be certain to proceed correctly next time. I think I may be able to do an hour, but my goal is simply to go for at least 40 minutes on my next birthday in March. And you better believe I will get the right camera and cross the t’s and dot the i’s to certify it!
I plan to do a plank record attempt every year on my birthday, and to better what I did the year before until my age finally catches up with me and my time begins to decline. But even then, it will probably be a record for the age I will be. I’m not resting on my laurels–I’m always trying to improve on the things I do. It’s what keeps me juiced!
You mention prostate cancer. Was that a motivation to shape up to do something extreme like this?
One of them, yes. There have been several over the past decade. But it’s the biggie.
I was diagnosed in 2014 and had my prostate removed. Long story short, it was a botched surgery. They used robotics, and when they sewed me up I had a lot of pain and went into kidney failure. They had to open everything up again and unkink a ureter. The second surgery went on hours longer than expected because a needle dropped off one of the robotic arms and they couldn’t easily retrieve it. They probably had to do a lot of pushing on my organs. My abdomen filled with fluid and the drain tube had to be left in for three weeks instead of the usual three days. I was having cramps and was doubled over and sometimes screaming. It was like being in hell. I eventually had to call 911 after three weeks of near-constant misery. It turned out that the drainage tube was pressed against both my bladder and large intestine causing near-constant spasms, and after they removed it I was okay.
What an ordeal!
There’s more. They had made six openings in my abdomen with this robotic surgery, and then they had to open them all over again. That’s a dozen, and within two years I also had an appendectomy and a surgery on a hernia which developed on one of the scars from the prostate surgery. All in all, I had 14 incisions over two years, and every one is known to weaken your abdomen. They either go through or between muscles, and then break through the layer below called the omentum. They suggested that I should be done with doing sit-ups and such, but I refused to accept that.
I decided to see what I could do to restore my abdomen. After lots of strengthening work, I invented what I call the “Strength and Endurance Trifecta” with the aspiration that it will become a worldwide competition. It’s a combination of the abdominal plank, regular pushups, and handstand pushups with 30 seconds of rest between activities. You would be hard pressed to devise a more severe torture test for the abdomen. In my case, to perform it regularly might be damaging, but to prepare I cross train at least twice daily with various abdominal exercise routines. By the way, I only actually plank for long periods when I’m performing for the record.
So you proved them wrong!
Yes, and I’ve done that many times and I’m still standing. For example, I had barely started running in my 60s when I was told by my doctors that I couldn’t do it anymore. [Laugh] Here’s what happened: I started to run in 2014 shortly before I had my medical problems. My eldest son was doing a half marathon in Indiana and wanted me to come along and do the 5K. That’s 3.1 miles – I couldn’t run 3.1 blocks – I really couldn’t. He said I didn’t have to run the whole way–I could stop and walk. So I trained during the few weeks until the race and steadily increased my range. The course was hilly, but I only stopped three times. I didn’t get a stellar time, but there was no one else in my age range, so I won the blue ribbon for my age group in my first race. [Laugh]
Then came the next hit – I got a blood clot in my right leg and only then found that I had a congenital clotting disorder. If I had known that I would have been taking blood thinners. I was hospitalized, and they unsuccessfully tried to flush it out with IV blood thinners. They finally tried a procedure with a needle and it punctured an artery. My leg filled up with blood, and in order to save it they had to perform a fasciotomy, which involves massive and deep cuts on both sides of the lower leg. They had to cut through muscles and nerves, which is very debilitating in itself, but on top of that I was permanently left with only one of three arteries functioning in that lower leg.
Talk about tough surgeries! That sounds crippling.
Tell me about it. So I was told I wouldn’t run again, but if it healed well maybe I could take a long walk. It took six months for just the incisions to fully heal. I was told that if I worked really hard and exercised the leg aggressively, I could develop what’s called collateral circulation. That’s when you develop smaller veins and capillaries to recover the circulation to some degree. I worked like crazy and it wasn’t long before I was able to run again. In fact, the circulation in my right foot is now identical to the left, and the doctors at the Mayo Clinic had never seen that before. It was due to having had a great surgeon, but mostly to how hard I worked to recover.
I worked back into running and then entered races of increasing lengths, and finally marathons. I also became a competitive sprinter, long jumper, and triple jumper. Last year I ran my third full marathon the day after returning late at night from the National Senior Games in Albuquerque.
We’ll get to Senior Games in a moment, but first tell us more about your early life – did you do sports?
My mother died when I was four and my father had a hard time holding it together, so my sister and I were shipped off to relatives in Iowa for a couple years, and then we came back. My dad wasn’t athletic, and there really wasn’t much available for organized sports for kids at that time until you were in upper school. I went to St. Louis Park High School in a suburb of Minneapolis, which was a big school with over 700 in each class. It wasn’t a shoo-in that a decent athlete would make varsity.
Besides that, because of my unusual upbringing I had emotional issues and was drinking as an adolescent. I got caught by the police, and at that time Minnesota had a law that banned you from varsity sports for a year if you were caught with alcohol or substances. It ought to be the opposite, you should be made to do sports! [Laugh] So I may have been a “bubble” player to begin with, but I was banned from sports for my entire sophomore year, which sealed my fate as far as varsity sports were concerned. I took up partying as an alternative.
So, you didn’t know if you were a good athlete or not.
I did play Little League baseball and rec basketball through high school, and I also worked out a lot. I was a muscle guy and loved to lift weights. Honestly, I may have had what it took, but I wasn’t motivated to excel in sports, and the system in place certainly wasn’t encouraging me. For college, I went to the University of Wisconsin, which of course was too huge for someone of my size and unexceptional capabilities to compete. I did enjoy playing rec basketball.
Were you active after college?
I did play basketball and kept myself pretty much in shape for many years. I was the scoring champion in my over-35 league into my 40s. I played some golf too, but basketball was always my favorite sport. When I reached my 50s, I became less active, wasn’t eating right and started gaining weight. In fact, 20 years ago I looked older than I do now. But after all these life challenges and health issues hit me about ten years ago, I started running and resolved to get my health back and to ‘up my game.’ I now thrive on setting lofty goals and being competitive.
You have mentioned the medical issues. What else was life dealing you?
For many years I owned a successful manufacturing company which made upscale signs and displays. My big product was those prismatic three-panel displays you used to see on billboards, especially in big cities. I had over 100 employees at the peak around 2005, but due to a sudden “perfect storm” of factors, the business closed its doors in 2010 and it hit me hard. I didn’t do much of anything for a couple years. During that time my father died, then my best friend and several others were killed in a horrible workplace shooting incident. Then I had all of my medical problems.
Yeah. I hadn’t made any plans for what to do next and didn’t have any reason or motivation to get out of bed except to do some exercising. It was a depressing time to say the least. Those were the hardest years of my life until I started back with my athletic stuff and eventually rose above it all.
Wow. So Senior Games and the planking challenge got you out of your funk?
Yes, plus the running, and of course a very supportive family. I started competing in 2018 at the Iowa Senior Games to do track and field events and saw they also offered basketball. That’s my sport. I couldn’t find enough local guys my age willing to drive down there as a team, but the Iowa folks were nice enough to make a few calls and I got onto a 70+ team from Nebraska that was short one player. That team won the gold, and I joined their team that went to South Dakota and we won gold there too. That qualified me for Nationals.
The following year I found a team in Minnesota (in the next lower 65+ age group) that had a guy drop out. I joined them for the Nationals in Albuquerque just in time. Unfortunately, I ruptured a tendon in my left hand playing basketball in the spring so I was not stellar. I couldn’t shoot well, but I could play make and drive the ball. I wasn’t a big factor, but I sure enjoyed doing it.
By the way, I had a fiberglass cast after I had surgery on my arm. I decided to go to the neighborhood court to see how I could shoot with one hand only. I surprised myself and made a video for fun, and to use in my “overcoming obstacles” motivational presentations. [Watch it here] So instead of being bummed about not being able to play, I practiced shooting one-handed almost daily, and now I’ve added some new shots to my game I didn’t have before.
Another challenge met! What was your impression of the National Senior Games?
It was absolutely awesome to see what people can do at these ages. You see it also at the state level, but there’s such a huge number at the Nationals. Seeing Pat Boone playing basketball at 85 was fantastic. Between my events, I went to check out some of the sports I had never dreamed of playing. It was a lot of fun, and I especially liked looking around the Village exhibit area.
I quickly learned that I’m competitive on the state level and not so much at this level where you have lots of serious competitors who’ve been doing this forever. Now that I see what the national competition is like, it’s challenging me to work harder on everything. I hope to medal there someday, and to do it with fewer working arteries than the competition is a little added challenge. [Laugh]
You respond fiercely to challenges. Some of this seems impossible to achieve. What caused you to become this ornery, Andy?[Laugh] That’s a good question. Maybe it’s got something to do with aging. If I’m ever going to take on a challenge, I guess it’s now. Also, establishing measurable goals really helps to focus, which in turn helps distract from life’s other challenges—like cancer, in my case. And once I realized I could excel in one area, it gave me the confidence to try new challenges. For instance, I’d never heard of the triple jump until I saw in listed in Iowa in 2018. Now that I’ve medaled in it in numerous state senior games and I’ve got my sights on pole vaulting for the next challenge.
All of this is part of my multimedia presentation which I’m constantly updating. A close acquaintance at a social media agency asked me to come tell my story a couple of summers ago. I put together a presentation and spoke to this group of millennials and ended by doing 25 handstand pushups, which of course none of them could do. That really got their attention and a big ovation. I was in better shape than most of them. [Laugh]
I’ve since done many talks, and I’m eager to share my story more. Maybe not everybody has the ability to do many of the things I’ve done, but everybody has the ability to be better than they are now–I don’t care who they are. I just ran into a friend at the Y today. His wife has MS and uses a wheelchair, and she’s in there three times a week working out on the equipment with his sweet assistance. She’s not going to be running marathons, but it may delay development of the disease, plus it helps take her mind off of it.
Most people aren’t in that dire of straits, but maybe they are overweight, out of shape, or simply don’t think they can do certain things that they actually could do. But everyone can do a little more or a little better. I’ve overcome alcoholism, depression, obesity, and then all these physical challenges I was told I couldn’t overcome. If I can give somebody a little spark, you know, get out of the idea that ‘My fitness life’s over, I’m just going to enjoy my grandkids and become a couch potato,’ I feel great about doing that.
You are in amazing shape given everything you have shared. How do you exercise and train to achieve that?
One of the keys to my success is to do cross training. In fact, I go against all the rules of distance running, such as the notion that you should run 50 or more miles per week. I don’t think I run one marathon’s worth of distance training in a whole year. Instead, I do a lot of strength training. I lift weights, not heavy weights, just a lot of repetitions. I do squats to build up my leg strength. And I never practice long planks either. I do tons of core exercises such as various crunches, short planks, mountain climbers, bridge exercises, etc. For sprinting events I do some practice, but for distance running I think the downside of doing a lot of road work is greater than the benefit for me at my age. I do various types of low-impact training which mimic or are similar to the running motion, such as elliptical machines, biking and swimming. I also do water running.
Another thing I do is play basketball three times a week with competitors in all age groups except my own—that also boosts my endurance and strength. Additionally, my YMCA offers a lot of classes that I take advantage of. By doing cross training this way I don’t grow to hate running or doing the plank.
You do a lot of things against the grain, and you’ve said some of it may not be right for others. What’s the most important advice you can give others that is common with your practices now?
Well, I do my own thing a lot, and I don’t work with a trainer. But there’s nothing wrong with getting a trainer – if I needed motivation I would get one, but I’m getting everything I need with self-motivation. I do tell people to do the classes that are offered at their club or Y. They have a zillion activities – aerobics, Zumba, spinning classes, water exercises, weights and more. They’re all good and burn a lot of calories. And inevitably you will work harder and smarter than you would working out on your own.
I tell people nutrition is key too. I tend to gain weight easily, so I avoid desserts and don’t add butter, sugar or salt to my food. When we do eat out my wife and I usually share an entrée and add an additional salad.
We are also intrigued hearing you have launched a singing career. Is that another result of your challenges?
Yes, it did start when I was coming out of all of my troubles several years ago. I took vocal training because I always knew I had a voice and could shower sing, but I was clueless about technique. Long story short, some lucky things happened. I went to Brazil and found just the right people to move me along. Barely two years after starting vocal training I headlined at one of the top clubs in Rio, and recorded my first CD there—a combination of Sinatra and Brazilian songs. I returned in early 2019 and had a show with a fabulous Brazilian jazz singer, Célia Jones. We recorded a CD afterwards of timeless love songs from around the world, which was just released in December. It contains ten duets and four solos, in five languages…
Wait. Five languages?
I took Spanish in high school and Portuguese in college, and I made a point to keep up with them. So, I speak three languages fluidly. In Minnesota, residents 62 and over get free tuition for higher education at state institutions. Last fall, I enrolled in freshman French and Italian at the University of Minnesota. I had to leave after six weeks for some travel, but I did learn comprehension and pronunciation well enough to sing in those languages. From Brazil, I even sent practice recordings to my professors to help hone pronunciation where I needed to. I have also recorded two versions of Ave Maria in Latin, so I could stretch it and say I sing in six languages. And I plan to add another soon. That’s pretty good for a guy from farm country! [Laugh]
Your singing must lift your spirits.
Absolutely. It’s very therapeutic for me. It has brought some income, but I don’t do it so much for money as for enjoyment. I perform at restaurants and clubs, but also at senior facilities. I have a wide repertoire that includes all of the old American standards. I sing only happy nostalgic songs for the seniors and it gives both them and me a lot of joy.
You’re hooked on Senior Games now. Do you plan to keep doing marathons too?
I had a big blister problem in my last one and the normal aches and pains afterwards, and I vowed to cut back to half marathons. But now I’ve resolved to find ways to avoid those setbacks and continue running long distances for as long as I can. I try to never say “never”!
Whether it’s distance runs or sprints, I’m rarely the fastest in my age group, but then again I’m surely the only one running on one artery in a leg! [Laugh] My goal is not to be the fastest, but hopefully to one day be the oldest in the race! [Laugh]
Andy, you’ve learned that the radiation wasn’t successful and you’re now battling prostate cancer for the third time. How does that affect your attitude and plans to compete?
The good news is that it’s a very slow-growing type of cancer. I’m not a fan of the current therapy options, and it’s not urgent, so I’m hoping something more appealing is developed soon. Also, there is increasing evidence that a wholistic lifestyle—eating and exercising right, reducing stress factors, etc. can effectively fight progression of the disease. So I’m being more diligent than ever.
In the meantime, it just motivates me to push myself harder and to do all of these activities as much as possible for as long as I can. I constantly remind myself that the horizons are wide, and with the right attitude, nothing is impossible!
Find More Great Personal Best Features at NSGA.com/personalbest