I sure I enjoyed shoot-'em-up Wild West movies when I was a kid. But unlike Willie Nelson, my heroes have always been athletes rather than cowboys.

New York Yankees' Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, football quarterback Johnny Unitas, hoopsters Jerry West and Bill Russell, Olympians Don Schollander and Jim Ryan, plus the finest soccer player I knew, my Scottish next-door neighbor Bill McLeod - they all wowed me in my formative years. And of course my dad was my biggest hero, both in sports and in life.

Later, when I left team sports for individual athletic pursuits, people such as tennis player Billie Jean King, former Oregon distance runner Steve Prefontaine and cyclist Greg Lemond provided plenty of inspiration for me to get fit and stay that way.

These days, following the athletic exploits of local athletes and training with them whenever possible motivates me to stay fit. Below are a few of my favorites.

No one supports and promotes sports and athletic activities better than Mary Blake, the director of Sunset Empire Park & Recreation District in Seaside. From beach strolls to midnight swims, skating exhibitions to biathlons, this irrepressible water woman has been there, done that. In fact, Mary has her hand in most of the fitness happenings in the Columbia-Pacific region.

Ernie Atkinson wasn't the first person to pedal a two-wheeler fast in these parts. But he may be the most accomplished bicycle racer our area has ever seen. At a time when most folks his age believed bikes were strictly for kids, this now-retired Astoria educator was racing up and down the West Coast and in Mexico. Later he distinguished himself by building work-of-art bike frames. Ernie continues to ride for fun and fitness.

Jim Carruthers was a gangly kid trying to grow into his body when he began rowing competitively at Oregon State University. Close to a half-century later, he's a well-honed silver-haired senior citizen who refuses to acknowledge that age might be a limitation to athletic achievement. And Jim's workouts are one-of-a-kind: Look for him trudging through the Oregon coast dunes dragging a 20-pound chain or pushing his red Toyota pickup around an empty parking lot.

The Columbia-Pacific region's finest all-around athlete? Dennis Braun is a serious contender for that honor. From running mountain trails to serving tennis balls, there aren't many sports or fitness activities this lifetime Seasider can't perform well. For more than a decade Dennis's passion has been run-bike duathlons, and he's currently a member of the U.S. World Duathlon Team.

Laurie Beers is so intent on competing in the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon Championships - a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run rolled into a single-day event - that she relocated from Cannon Beach to the Big Island to train year-round. But then the land of sun and surf is an appropriate destination for this 40-something outdoor adventurer. In the 1970s, Beers became the Oregon Coast's first successful female surfer, and she continues to ride waves both in the islands and on the mainland.

Never call Earl Water old, because he could probably stroke past you in the water. A swimmer for a good part of his eight decades, this Gearhart resident has garnered umpteen age-group medals at numerous national championships. From the butterfly stroke to the individual medley (an event in which participants use four different strokes), Earl lends credence to the adage that age matters in athletics only if you dwell on it.

He's so mild mannered and slight of build that John Goodenberger isn't a readily recognizable athlete. Yet with a 2:23:48 marathon (26.2 miles) under his belt, he's the swiftest long-distance runner ever to graduate from Astoria High School. Now a successful historic building consultant, John coaches and trains with runners on Astoria High's cross country and track teams.

Just back from the South Pacific, Dan Marineau is living every surfer's dream - traveling to exotic, far-off locales in search of an endless summer and perfect waves. Fortunately he works as a nurse, a vocation that allows ample time to globe trot the world's oceans. And Dan's not just a wave rider; this muscular ex-pole vaulter is the consummate waterman and pound for pound, perhaps the strongest guy I know.

Lots of women ride horses, but Lynne Leland may be the equestrian queen of the Columbia-Pacific region. When she isn't riding Shamrock or Zephyr on the trails and logging roads behind her Svensen home, Lynne probably is competing in 25-mile endurance events in Northern California or Central Oregon and Washington, athletic endeavors for the horse and rider that involve considerably more prowess than climbing in the saddle and yelling "giddyup."

Astorian Jeffrey Reynolds is known for his violin virtuosity. In addition to performing classical compositions, he's a mainstay in the Heather Christie Band, a group that features "power-folk" music. But Jeffrey's greatest talent may be pedaling a bicycle. He's a regional class all-around rider and a national caliber climber. Caring for two daughters and working three different jobs precludes much racing, but even in so-so shape Jeffrey is a formidable cyclist. When I can keep up with him (which isn't often), I feel mighty fine about my fitness.

Richard Fencsak is the co-owner of Bikes and Beyond in Astoria. His column appears the first and third Thursday of every month in The Daily Astorian.

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