Road-racing Cherokee elder pedals way to better health
Cherokee elder Simeon Gipson, 73, competes in long-distance bicycling events at state, national and worldwide levels. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Simeon Gipson, of Tahlequah, shows off medals he’s earned in state and world senior bicycle competitions. He said he “owes a lot to those two wheels.” CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cyclist and Cherokee Nation citizen Simeon Gipson rides his bike on Jan. 31 in Tahlequah. The 73-year-old logs several thousand miles a year bicycling throughout the Cherokee Nation. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – Overweight and crippled by diabetes a decade ago, Cherokee elder Simeon Gipson reclaimed his post-retirement life with a healthy dose of competition.
The 73-year-old from Tahlequah logs several thousand miles a year bicycling throughout the Cherokee Nation when not competing in games at state, national and worldwide levels.
“I owe a lot to those two wheels,” he said. “That first ride on my junker bike, I went one mile from my house up to the highway and back. I tell you, I thought I was going to die. But the more I rode, the more I liked it. You get out on the road and it empties your mind and you just don’t hear anything except the crunching of gravel under your wheels.”‘Little Tot’
Gipson was born “way out in the woods” in the Delaware County community of Bull Hollow. His mother was Cherokee, while his father, a heavy-equipment operator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was Choctaw.
“My mom and dad both wanted us to speak Cherokee and Choctaw, but as little fellas and girls, we started getting the two languages crossed,” he said. “So, they just kind of said if you’re going to learn it, learn it on your own.”
In general, however, Gipson, his four brothers and five sisters were “pretty much isolated from the Cherokee culture.”
“In later years when you can look back,” he said, “that was one of the things I guess I frowned on, that we were never given the Native culture.”
Gipson said as “a little tot,” he suffered from polio, which impaired his walking. When describing that period in his life, he references the decade’s old Boys Town motto, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”
“For years I thought that was about me and my brother because he used to carry me,” Gipson said. “The other times I couldn’t walk, my brothers and sisters, they’d push me in a makeshift buggy. They didn’t treat me any different. They just threw me into the mix. I guess it was sink or swim.”
For more than a decade, Gipson and his “stabilizing family” spent nine months of the year at Oaks Indian Mission Children’s Home, now known as Oaks Indian Mission.
“Both my mom and dad were house parents at one of the cottages,” he said.
As a teenager, he played basketball and football at Oaks High School. Two years into attending then-Northeastern State College in Tahlequah, Gipson’s life took an unanticipated turn after a brother was injured in a motorcycle accident.
“It almost killed him,” Gipson said. “So I stayed with him for a couple of weeks. Initially, the school said they’d let me catch up with my work and everything. When I went back, it was a different story. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll show you.’ I joined the Navy.”Military Man
His oldest brother, who served on an aircraft carrier, inspired Gipson’s four years in the Navy. In contrast, Gipson was stationed under water.
“I’d never thought about submarines,” he said. “But I figured I’d give it a try. It was like a lot of things I do, kind of just a spur-of-the-moment thing.”
Working in the engine room, the “closeness never bothered me,” Gipson said. “I had a job to do. The hard part to me was the monotony, the routine of doing the same thing. You go to bed, wake up, work, and in-between times, eat.”
Even though he served during the Vietnam War, Gipson doesn’t consider himself a Vietnam veteran. “I was safely out at sea. Mostly we were observers. We laid off the coast of North Korea once or twice, just sat out there in their bay and watched them.”Ailing Retiree
After the Navy, he worked for various tribes’ housing programs and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but eventually retired after 19 years at W.W. Hastings Indian Hospital.
At 62, he said he weighed 245 pounds with “diabetes out of control.”
“I was on heart meds, high-blood-pressure medication,” he said. “I retired so I could enjoy my last years a little bit.”
A pricey bicycle gift from his “biggest supporter” and son, also named Simeon, reintroduced the retiree to cycling, a hobby of years past.
“Out of 10 kids growing up, there was maybe two bikes in the family. None of them were mine,” he said. “I never owned a bike until I got out of the service. I finally got me an old yard-sale bike. I rode that all over Muskogee. I really enjoyed it.”
But returning to the pedals wasn’t easy. He persisted in a cycling circuit that only grew until, at 175-180 pounds, he was a slimmer healthier man in control of his diabetes. But early into his comeback, Gipson sought clearance for knee surgery and was instead told by doctors he needed open-heart surgery.
“They said I had three arteries, one 90 percent plugged, the least 75 percent plugged,” he said. “Two, maybe three weeks later, I was laying in a hospital. They said easily I could have had a heart attack out riding, dead before I hit the road. But I did it to myself. I can’t blame anybody but me.”
Undeterred, Gipson recuperated before making his way into a 10K cycling contest.
“I couldn’t stay off the bike,” he said. “That bike has become a part of my life. But I come to find out I can’t do well in short races. Now I do a 20K and 40K.”Road Racer
Gipson competes in the Oklahoma National Games, National Senior Games and global games in the 70-74 age bracket, “probably the most competitive age group,” he said.
“Once I started racing, I don’t know if it’s so much the competitions or riding with other people,” he said. “I may never talk to anybody else, but I just love being there with them. And we get to wear these funny looking clothes and nobody says anything.”
Despite medalling in statewide games, Gipson isn’t obsessed with success at the national level. “Will I ever medal in the national games? I don’t know. But I know for a fact that because I’m there I’ll never lose because of what it’s done for me.”
Gipson plans on competing in the 2019 games in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In the meantime, he can be seen racing down roads in Cherokee country. “I’ve got a radius bounded by Muskogee, (West) Siloam (Springs), Locust Grove and Sallisaw. If I need anything in those areas, I know I can be there in two hours or so. I’ve got the time.”