WESTERLY — Pat Grande is a powerhouse. Later this month the Westerly athlete, who celebrated her 76th birthday recently, plans to put her power to the test when she heads to New Mexico to compete in the National Senior Games.
Wearing a "Rock Steady" baseball cap and a bright red "This Babe Has Power" T-shirt, Grande, with a cooler full of water, power bars and bananas nearby, chatted with her coach at the Westerly High School track one afternoon last week as she waited to train with her power-walking partner.
Grande, a past president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce who for 24 years welcomed guests at her B&B — the former Grandview Bed and Breakfast on Shore Road — will head to Albuquerque along with Kathryn Taylor, the former executive director of the Westerly Library. The two Westerly women have been training with Coach Geoff Visgilio of Rock Steady Boxing for months now preparing for the games, which are held every two years.
Originally called the Senior Olympics Organization, the vision of the games is "to promote healthy lifestyles for adults through education, fitness and sport."
"Geoff and Rock Steady got me in shape," said Grande. "It's a complex tale, but it's all come together."
"Exercise is no longer an option," added Grande, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2012. "Kathryn and I have the same philosophy: be the best we can be for as long as we can."
Grande and Taylor, who is a cancer survivor, mountain climber, marathon walker and proud Rotarian, will compete in two power-walking events in Albuquerque: the 1,500-meter race on Saturday, June 15, and the 5K on Monday, June 17.
Visgilio, who graduated from Westerly High School in 1992, has been teaching the Rock Steady exercise course — a program aimed at slowing the progression of Parkinson's — since his father was diagnosed with the disease in 2015.
A licensed acupuncturist, Visgilio said he empowers his pupils by combining the "harder, more aggressive aspects of boxing" with the "softer, more supple flowing of Tai Chi." The emphasis is on movement and balance, he said.
Grande, who joined the Rock Steady program about a year ago, said Visgilio agreed to coach the power-walking pair earlier this year when they made the decision to compete.
"We are so lucky to have him as a coach," said Grande. "This wouldn't have happened without Rock Steady."
"I attribute my current high fitness level to Geoff ... and Rock Steady Boxing, which is designed to help people diagnosed with Parkinson's 9," said Grande.
Visgilio's program helps reduce symptoms of the disease and improve "balance, slow movements and rigidity," she said.
Grande said the idea to compete at the games all started with her friend, Lee Stepanishen, an athlete and two-time Senior Games competitor with a gold medal in swimming to her credit.
When Stepanishen, a retired Stonington school teacher and longtime fitness advocate, heard that power-walking was being added to the list of sports competitions for the first time in the organization's 32-year history, she immediately thought of Grande.
One winter's eve, the two friends went out for dinner and Stepanishen "completed her pitch before I could say 'no,'" said Grande.
"Lee knew that my fitness level had improved immeasurably since I began Rock Steady Boxing," said Grande, who walks three miles a day, six days a week before her 10 a.m. boxing class. "She told me competing would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
"I mulled it over for about ten seconds before I said 'yes,'" said Grande.
"It was a good thing," said Stepanishen, who joined Grande, Visgilio and Taylor at the high school track. "I had already booked the room."
"I am so proud of her," added Stepanishen, who plans to compete in swimming and in the triathlon in Albuquerque. "Just so proud of her and of Katherine."
A third woman, Cynthia Tanzi of Lincoln, a friend of Taylor's and a fellow cancer survivor, plans to join the two Westerly power-walkers.
Back at the high school track, Visgilio timed the walkers as they circled the track and reminded them to look up.
"You're going to go where your eyes go," he cautioned, "so look straight ahead."
"You guys are really doing well," Visgilio added, noting they had just completed their fastest time so far.
"Our message to everyone," added Grande, especially for older people, is to "to add regular exercise to their daily regime to promote a healthy lifestyle and a longer life."
"I'd like more people to walk," said Taylor, who serves as president of the Rotary Club of Westerly. "You can raise money for charities and just walk for fun ... but walk."
"We have no idea what we'll come up against in the races," said Grande. "But, we'll be well-trained and prepared to be the best we can be."
"A few prayers never hurt either," she added.