Local | Senior Lifestyle

Senior Olympics now beckon Tucson man who started tai chi for pain

John Messing practices a tai chi movement.

John Messing, a practicing local attorney, will compete in tai chi at the Senior Olympics in Phoenix next month.

Messing, 72, started doing tai chi about four years ago, primarily in response to a painful condition that suddenly developed in his left hip due to an IT-band injury, which gave him a crippling limp. He began learning tai chi at the Tucson Jewish Community Center with instructor Shuping Zhao. She has been both his teacher and his coach for the Senior Olympics.

“I have been fortunate to have regained full use of my leg and hip and then some, with increased strength and coordination, so I am an advocate for tai chi among the elderly,” says Messing.

According to Messing, the difference between tai chi and other sports is that it relies upon slow, controlled movements that gently and persistently exercise sequentially related portions of the body. The movements generate powerful internal forces that massage tissues and induce a meditative state.

Tai chi has been called an internal martial art. It is a relatively new addition to the list of sports in Senior Olympics around the country. Tai chi was only added to the Florida Senior Olympics in 2015 and in Arizona is only offered at the games in Phoenix.

“Tucson is fortunate to host a vibrant tai chi community,” adds Messing. “The Chinese government sponsors the Confucius Institute at the University of Arizona, which brings quality Chinese acupuncturists, Mandarin teachers and tai chi instructors to Tucson. One instructor, Junming Zhao, a Shaolin Temple master, recently returned to China after three productive years in Tucson and hopes to return again when a visa is again available to him.”

The Tucson Jewish Community Center and the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center both offer many tai chi classes, and Handmaker offers weekly tai chi classes to its residents. Messing hopes that the Tucson Senior Olympic organizers will include tai chi in the competitions in the future.

This March will be Messing’s first Senior Olympics, but he’s had other noteworthy moments and achievements. He witnessed the student revolutions in Paris, traveled on foot through remote parts of Africa and enjoyed a productive career as an immigration attorney. As an attorney, he utilized an unusual combination of computer programming and legal skills. He was the founder in the late 1990s and early 2000s of one of the earliest electronic court filing programs in the United States. The program, the Pima County Smalls Claims E-Filing Program, was initially called the Virtual People’s Court after the well-known TV program with Judge Wapner.

Building upon his previous and varied accomplishments, Messing explains his current motivation to compete. “Tai chi sharpens the mind, increases coordination, strengthens the limbs, and deepens the spirit. When done properly, it is like watching poetry in motion. I want to get as good at it as I can, while I still can.

“Participation in the Senior Olympics is a means to that end. I work out several hours a day, sometimes more, preparing for the event. The discipline is good. The challenge heightens focus,” he says.

Messing has lived in Tucson since 1978, although he also lived here as a young child and attended Sam Hughes Elementary School and Mansfield Junior High School. He, his wife Harriet, and two of their four adult children currently live in Tucson.

“There is no reason why growing old has to be about winding down, bragging about real or imaginary achievements or nursing regrets, and becoming slowly invisible,” Messing says.

He remembers a relative once impressed him with how she increased the pace of her existence as she aged: putting the pedal to the metal, before it was all over.

“I think that is a good philosophy, and I try to emulate it,” he says. “I have lived an interesting life, but these are stories about times past. Preparing for the Senior Olympics is about living life now. I guess that’s why I am doing it. Why not?”

Ed Leven, Ph.D., is a freelance writer, former coordinator of JFSA Pride, and a retired professor of health care administration in Tucson.