Athleticism and age tend to be combative traits and polarized positions for most. But when it comes to 81-year-old Marge Yonda, you can throw the book away.
A mother of five, grandmother of 11 and great-grandmother of one, she has mimicked the Energizer Bunny while segueing from marathon running to American Kennel Club agility competition the past decade.
But it hasn’t been easy.
Injuries have served up momentous challenges for her and her 9-year-old StandardPoodle partner, Maggie, but they have only pushed the pause button momentarily before recharging into overdrive and back into the ring.
While in her 50s and 60s, Yonda ran eight marathons – all under 4 hours and with a best time of 3 hours, 45 minutes – and engaged in plenty of bicycle touring worldwide with her husband, Tony, including a 4,650-mile cross-country trip, and worked out regularly on an elliptical trainer.
While the five children were growing up, the family owned five dogs – a Dalmatian, two Brittany Spaniels, Boxer, and an All American dog – but when Tony and Marge became empty nesters they traveled to 53 countries and didn’t own a dog for two decades.
“At that time in our lives,” Yonda explains, “we spent four months every winter in our RV in Mexico, and were parked next to a couple with a Standard Poodle. We fell in love with the dog — and the breed – and liked the fact it did not smell or shed. We had no idea how smart the breed is, nor its happy-go-lucky temperament.”
After leaving Mexico on one of those trips, they flew to Oregon, where they found their first Standard Poodle puppy. However, she suffered from a stomach ailment and died a short time later from a blood clot following surgery.
They allowed time to heal before searching for another Standard. In the spring of 2007, they purchased Maggie from a Connecticut breeder/veterinarian and were introduced to agility in a puppy obedience training class.
“There I was at age 72 starting with my first agility dog who was 4 months old. She entered her first trial at age 15 months,” Yonda recalls. Four years later Yonda began worrying about what would happen if Maggie became ill or injured. She remedied that by getting a second Standard Poodle, Mandy, from the same breeder. She is now 4 and on track for her first MACH.
When a knee replacement forced her to discontinue marathon running, agility proved to be the perfect option for the energetic senior. “It saved me in a sense,” says Yonda. “Here I could run short distances in a competitive environment. And it turned out Maggie was great at it, although, at that time, as a handler, I was awful.”
There are many sports with partners where verbal communication is commonplace. “Agility gives new meaning to partnership and an unbreakable bond between two species. It is a unique experience, from which I have quickly learned that most mistakes are handler errors,” she acknowledges.
Yonda says the sport offers something for everyone, no matter the age or physical impairment. “I have even seen a handler in a wheelchair,” she adds. “However, to do well it is important to be physically fit. I do 40 minutes on the elliptical trainer, 50 push-ups, and 200 crunch sit-ups four times a week. I also play pool volleyball and am enrolled in exercise classes.”
But she adds fun to the fitness mandate. “Sometimes that is difficult when one has just made a ridiculous error and the dog does not qualify. The key here is to keep remembering that this is supposed to be enjoyable. The dog does not know it did not qualify, is holding no grudges and continues on as if nothing happened.”
The Marge and Maggie Show has had it bumps in the road, too. Major ones physically.
In addition to her knee replacement, last August Yonda underwent a spinal fusion with bone grafts, requiring the placement of two rods and a dozen screws and bolts. “I never had any pain post-surgery,” she adds, “and I was back in the agility ring in 2½ months. I fear falling, however, and the first time back in the ring I went down flat on my back. Horrified, I laid there a short time while the judge held Maggie. I got up and finished the exercise.” Ironically, Maggie had a perfect run but time expired because Yonda had been on the ground too long.
Yonda and Maggie were entered in the 2015 Masters Agility Championship at Westminster, but Yonda was hospitalized the week before with a virus and shortly thereafter Maggie fractured her ankle. “It took weeks to recover from the disappointment of not being able to compete, since I had been at the press conference days before promoting the event.”
Maggie’s recovery wasn’t so quick. Her fracture was misdiagnosed as arthritis and she underwent rehab for weeks. Eventually, a Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine practitioner determined that her continued pain was due to a fracture. He cautioned Yonda the dog might never be able to compete in agility again, but after two months of following his recovery protocol she was back in the ring.
The bulk of the team’s competition is in the Northeast, although for several years while they wintered in Florida in an RV, they traveled to an agility trial almost every weekend.
Maggie’s 2016 Westminster outing didn’t go particularly well, either. While she had a perfect run, it was over time, costing her a place in the finals. “What I didn’t know at the time,” Yonda explains, “is that Maggie was sick. So sick, in fact, that we took her to an emergency veterinarian the next day for severe diarrhea, from which she quickly recovered.”
While Yonda’s agility ride has been packed with plenty of psychological bumps, she savors the new friendships, physical challenges, and tight partnerships she has cultivated with Maggie and Mandy along the way.
“They have been my soul mates and a grounding force on this journey,” she concludes, “which has been both challenging and satisfying.”
Header image: Steve Surfman, Westminster Kennel Club
Agility offers a fun activity for you and your dog, no matter your skill level. Whether your goal is to collect ribbons or just have some fun and meet other dog lovers, agility offers something for everyone. Learn more about the sport and find events in your area here.