Last month in PurposeFULL Living, we began our series on Southminster’s Super-Agers, the term medical researchers use for people in their 70s and 80s who s􀆟ll have the level of capabilities, physical and mental, enjoyed by their decades-younger counterparts. Southminster resident Becki Vaughn has quite literally taken the concept of being a Super-Ager to new heights, successfully climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in January of this year. Given all the other amazing things Vaughn has accomplished, scientists will probably need to create a new category for people like her: Extreme Super-Agers.

Finishing The Marine Corps Marathon
Vaughn started gettng fit in her 30s, and as her 40th birthday approached, “I gave myself a present. I signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. even though I had never even run a race,” Vaughn said. “I started training with a goal of just finishing.” On race day, as her competitors jockeyed for position in the line-up, she decided to use the porta-poty, a fortuitous decision that put her in the front of the race when the howitzer fired to start it. “With bands playing the whole way, it was such fun. I was hooked!” Vaughn kept on running after her 1st husband passed away at the age of 47 and her three sons went off to college. As she regrouped and began to reinvent her life without him, she decided on a new profession and went back to graduate school to get at Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Conquering the Appalachian Trail
One day, her son’s father-in-law, Jerry, who had also lost his spouse looked at her and said, “Well….?” And she replied “Well…what?” In time, he became her 2nd husband. His dedication as a world-class shot putter, Senior Olympian and National Master Track and Field standout helped keep her re-ignited to excel at physical endeavors. “I was accompanying Jerry to U.S. and international competitions, and he said, ‘you’re here, you might as well do some of this too!’ Around the same time, I had been reading my Appalachian Trail Conservancy Magazine and saw an ad from a woman looking for other section hikers to go on the trail together. I had never backpacked, but it sounded like a great idea.”

After her initial week on the trail with this group of women, Vaughn knew she wanted to do the other sections by herself. After finding a dog on the trail that never left her side, she decided she could use the canine protection. Although he was untrained and prone to stealing steaks from countertops, she named him Justice and groomed him to be her hiking companion. “I never knew you could fall in love with a dog. As we hiked on the Appalachian Trail, I became known as Jus􀆟ce’s mom. We did sections of the trail for three or four days at a time, came home, and then went out again. “By the time we got to Massachusetts, even with Justice by my side, I no longer felt safe traveling to the trail, so I started flying in to do the other sections on my own.”

Vaughn says a lot of her trail experience was about camaraderie – exercising your brain through social connections, another characteristic of Super-Agers. “It’s not so much about the trail as it is about you and how you interact with other people. You don’t have any way to make excuses, and you have a whole lot of time to think. That’s key to keeping on keeping on.” She ultimately ran out of time to finish the final peak, but even that provided a tremendous life lesson. “Whatever you do, even if you don’t complete it on a given day, the next day is another day,” she said. “Yesterday is gone, but your journey never has to end.”

Scaling Mount Kilimanjaro
For many people, walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, a network of pilgrimages leading to the shrine of the apostle James in Galicia in northwestern Spain, would be the pinnacle of challenges they have undertaken in their lives. But not Becki Vaughn. She used that experience to inspire her 2024 climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest single free-standing mountain above sea level in the world.

Vaughn prepared for this world-class climb by running and walking six to 14 miles most every day. One day a week, she climbed up and down North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak on the East Coast. She also trained by running a half-marathon in November. So what was the Kilimanjaro climb like? How did she do it? That is a story you’ve just got to hear in person from Becki Vaughn herself. And while you’re at it, ask this Super-Ager about other cerebral challenges she undertook in her life, such as learning Russian in order to explore an import/export art business and turning experience as a hospital volunteer into gettng a master’s degree in Occupational Therapy at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Continuing to Age Extremely Well
During the African adventure, Vaughn went on a safari and visited the Faraja Primary School in Tanzania – a school for children with disabilities, started by the late Don and Joann Tolmie, former residents of Southminster. www.farajaschool.org.

She also regularly exercises in Southminster’s employee exercise classes, which are more strenuous than classes for residents. In addition to being on the dance team in the “Walker Ballet,” she swims with the Masters at the Mecklenburg Aquatic Center (MAC) two days a week and plans to compete in the Senior Games at the Marion Diehl Center later this year. Whew!

“I admit that a couple of times I was freaking out about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro,” Vaughn said, “but I remembered the old joke ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ All the way up, I kept thinking, no matter how exhausted I am, remember it’s just one step, then another, then another. Everything you do is a spiritual journey. It’s never just about getting there.”
Coming up Next Month: Meet Super-Agers Carol Arnold, Lois Fisher and Sue Schenck.