At 102, Bettie Upright is ‘something to behold’ at Alaska Senior Games

Last Thursday was a typical day for 102-year-old Bettie Upright. She and her daughter, 75-year-old Ilene Day, went to a meeting in the morning and then to lunch. They spent the afternoon at Day's home near San Diego and then ventured out again to watch classic cars cruise by while they sat on a curb eating deli sandwiches.

The vintage vehicles had nothing on Upright.

"Nothing is as old as Mom," Day said with a chuckle.

Last month, Upright was the oldest athlete at the Alaska International Senior Games in Fairbanks, her home for 43 years until moving to California last year.

Upright competed in bocce ball, shot put, discus, javelin and the 50-meter dash, and during the opening ceremonies at Pioneer Park she took part in a two-person bucksaw contest.

For the 50-meter race at the Lathrop High track, Upright carried a cane but never used it during her 42.3-second journey to the finish line.

"I didn't know my grandma could move that fast," said Steve Day, Upright's 50-year-old grandson from Anchorage.


Previews of the Senior Games called Upright the most experienced athlete in the competition, but in truth she's a late bloomer.

She didn't start sawing logs until she was 95. She didn't start throwing the shot put, discus and javelin until she was 101.

"I've always been willing to do something new," Upright said last week, "but I have really lived a very ordinary life except to come up to Alaska."

Upright was 58 years old when she moved to Fairbanks in 1973 after the death of her first husband, Maurice Southwick.

She traveled alone to a place she'd never been, a far-away land where she knew no one and had no job waiting for her.

"I didn't know a soul, but I had been a schoolteacher and I figured they teach kids no matter where you are," she said. "I was hired as a substitute before I found an apartment to live in. I was still in the hotel."

She found full-time work at a prospecting shop, where she sold gold pans and other supplies "for years and years and years."

When she was 60, she took up bowling — her first organized sport. She bowled with a 12-pound ball until she was 101, when she stopped because of blurred vision in one eye. She stopped driving her SUV last year for the same reason, although her Alaska driver's license is valid for several more years.

"The (DMV) lady said she was the oldest person she's ever taken a picture of," daughter Ilene said.

Upright was the only athlete over 100 at this year's Senior Games.

A longtime participant in the games, Upright competed for the second straight year in javelin, discus and shot put.

Diann Darnell, a Senior Games board member, said Upright's training for the 2016 games consisted of a trip to a Fairbanks park, where Darnell showed Upright how to use the throwing implements.

"She did it great," Darnell said.

Equipment is adjusted for senior athletes, so Upright throws a .75-kilogram discus (1 pound, 10 ounces) and 400-gram javelin (a little more than 14 ounces) and puts a 2-kilogram shot (4.4 pounds). The only person in her group, she swept the gold medals last month and set a personal-best in the javelin (16 feet, 9 inches, nearly 2 feet better than her rookie effort a year ago). She tossed the discus 12-5 in the rain, while her grandson held an umbrella over her -— and put the shot 8-5.75.

"She is something to behold," said Bob Baker, the track and field commissioner for the Senior Games.

Upright was born in 1915, nearly 60 years before Title IX recast the country's athletic landscape by requiring public schools to provide athletic opportunities for girls.

She remembers playing kickball and a modified version of tennis while growing up in California.


"When I was a kid we didn't have a lot of equipment," she said. "We lived on a dead-end street and somebody gave us a tennis net. We used to put it across the road and when a car came by we had to take it down in a hurry."

During a phone interview last week — she and Ilene Day both took part via speakerphone — Upright said she feels fortunate to have had a long, healthy life.

She never smoked ("but I lived with a smoker for 37 years," she said), she's a healthy eater ("and she's a slow eater like you're supposed to be," her daughter said) and for most of her life she's goes out for daily walks ("I always thought that was good for me," she said).

"She's bold," grandson Steve Day said. "Even at 100 she was still bowling once a week and swimming once or twice a week.

"… She told me the other day she doesn't hurt anywhere. And I'm thinking, wow. … It shows that being active is really important in your life. You've gotta stay active and social."

Upright moved to California last year after the death of her second husband, Bob Upright, with whom she spent 40 years.

"She was a cougar. He was 12 years younger than her," Ilene Day said.

At that, Upright lowered the pitch of her voice and spoke in a faux-scandalous tone: "This is my daughter talking about me."


Day traveled to Fairbanks with her mom for last month's Senior Games. It was the first time she had seen her mother compete, and now she's contemplating returning next year and playing bocce doubles with her mom.

Provided she can keep up with her, that is.

Day and Upright both remember a family trip to Park City, Utah. While on a walk, Upright set a steady pace despite the altitude.

"My husband and I were walking along with her and I noticed he was huffing and puffing a little and I asked him if he wanted to sit down," Day said. "And he said, 'I'm not sitting down till your mother does.' ''

"And so I sat down so they could all sit down," Upright said.

Beth Bragg

Beth Bragg wrote about sports and other topics for the ADN for more than 35 years, much of it as sports editor. She retired in October 2021. She's contributing coverage of Alaskans involved in the 2022 Winter Olympics.