‘I think Rita can inspire us all to get moving’

By on July 12, 2023

Rita competing at the 2013 States Time Trial. (Photo courtesy Rita Seelig Ayers)

Manteo’s Rita Seelig Ayers doesn’t let MS stop her from being a top senior athlete

As a kid, Manteo resident Rita Seelig Ayers always preferred running around to sitting and reading a book or playing piano, although she jokes that she was forced to do both. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, there weren’t many women’s teams available, so she played street basketball and football with the boys, which gave her the skills to eventually play multiple varsity sports during college.

Later in life when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), she used that same persistence and tenacity to not allow a debilitating disease to stop her from being active. Instead, she went all the way to the National Senior Games, the largest sports competition held for seniors in the world, where she has competed and won awards since 2014.

And this year at the National Seniors Games, the sponsor of the competition, Humana, has selected the 72-year-old Ayers out of more than 11,000 athletes for its Humana Game Changer Award. That’s a national recognition of an athlete who exemplifies healthy aging and provides encouragement, motivation and inspiration for all seniors to live healthy lifestyles.

The games are being held in Pittsburgh, PA from July 7-18 and Ayers will compete in the cycling and swimming competitions—ranging from a 40K road race to a 200-yard breaststroke event

“Rita’s perseverance and commitment to a healthy lifestyle while living with Multiple Sclerosis is an inspiration to us all,” says Kathleen Schwarzwalder, North Carolina Market Vice President at Humana. “Her passion for and success in cycling is proof that age and health challenges don’t have to be an obstacle to engaging in activities that bring joy and promote well-being. While not everyone has a desire to compete, I think Rita can inspire us all to get moving and challenge society’s expectations of what it means to be a senior.”

When Ayers started experiencing the symptoms of MS, she was 42 and playing volleyball with some friends. Volleyball was one of the varsity sports she played at Regis College, and she was recruited to play semi-pro pro after graduation. Married with two children and a full-time job, she still got out to play from time to time.

“We started to play, and I went up to hit a spike—and I completely missed the ball. You would think I had never played the game before,” recalled Ayers. She then had an accident getting hit in the head by a ball at a softball game. And the Jane Fonda aerobics videos she had come to rely on to get her daily workout started to get fuzzy.

“Every time I would start bouncing around with Jane on the TV there, my vision would go out of phase, and I’d get dizzy,” she said. She went to her ophthalmologist and retinologist who both said her eyes were fine and chalked it up to aging.

It would be eight more years before Ayers was finally diagnosed with MS, when she lost sight in her right eye and demanded answers. From the time she was 42 until her diagnosis at age 50, Ayers ran a total of 37 half marathons with her daughter, not knowing she was fighting a debilitating disease.

According to Ayers, she really struggled during the first year of her diagnosis. She started medication, but she did get more symptoms and more relapses and permanent damage in her body. At this point. she was a single mother preparing to pay for her children’s college. She was a supervisor at the Dupont chemical company. Would she have to quit her job? Would she become bound to a wheelchair?

“And so I kind of struggled for a year. And then I kind of said to myself, ‘you know, yeah, I got MS. But I don’t have to live my life like I have MS,’” said Ayers. “So I said, I’m gonna do what the doctors tell me—get eight hours sleep, eat healthy, do my exercise every day, take my daily shot…and then I’m going to live like I don’t have a disease.”

In 2011, at the age of 60, she retired to the Outer Banks. Not long after she arrived, she heard about the Silver Riders—a local cyclist group for seniors started by retired military Veteran Jack McCombs.

“So I went and rode with them and I’m riding and all of a sudden, all the guys started talking about training for races,” Ayers recounted. Her ears perked up. McCombs found her a time trial bike and became her coach. In 2014, at age 64, she competed in her first Senior Games, but her bike wasn’t put together properly, and she took off for her first time trial with her handlebars turned completely upside down.

“And so I finished the race. Not well, but it did finish it,” she said.

“Sometimes people with MS, they turn their faces to the wall and give up and she’s the model for don’t give up. You can do wonderful things with your life despite the disease,” said McCombs. “What she’s accomplished is fantastic. She never let that disease beat her down…I don’t think I’ve ever met a person like her and I’m retired military and I’ve seen people that had been pretty severely injured. She takes the cake.”

In 2018, Rita did a cross-country cycle trip with a group of 47 cyclists from around the country.

“Probably one of the scariest, and yet most wonderful experiences of my life, I guess is how I would describe that,” she said. Ayers added that every day, whether training or on a cycling trip, or in competition, she has to work with the body that shows up and “I don’t know whether it’s going to be pre-MS body. I don’t know whether it’s going to be just what is now my new normal, or whether it’s going to be a stinking body that will not perform.”

The tradition during these trips is to pick someone out of the group to lead the group for the last mile. The group unanimously chose her, and when she was announced, they gave her a standing ovation.

Due to her positive outlook, active lifestyle and healthy diet, Ayers is now medication and relapse free, newly married, and ready to take on the 2023 games.

“What I try to get across to people all the time…that whoever you are, whether you have a condition or not, if you get more active, if you push yourself and you do something hard every day, you’re going to be you’re going to be in a better place,” she said.


  • Glenn

    Way to go, Ms. Ayers! Thanks for being an inspiration to so many…wish you continued success, much health & happiness.

    Wednesday, Jul 12 @ 8:00 pm
  • Drew Whalen

    Go, Rita! One of the strongest and most determined athletes I’ve ever worked with!

    Wednesday, Jul 12 @ 11:16 pm
  • Sheila Parisien

    Great article Rita. You are an inspiration to so many!!
    Good luck at Nationals~ congratulations on your award and keep moving. MS will never get its grips on you😎

    Thursday, Jul 13 @ 9:09 am
  • Sally Berra

    Wow. Rita is amazing, definitely a role model. I feel like a slug. I’ll never be a Rita, but I can try to do a little more than I do now. Thank you for publishing her story, and thank you Rita for your example.

    Thursday, Jul 13 @ 10:54 am
  • Lynn

    What an inspiring story! This really made my day.

    Thursday, Jul 13 @ 11:55 am
  • Bruce Polansky

    Proud to call Rita my friend! She is truly an inspiration.

    Friday, Jul 14 @ 9:16 pm
  • Ed Beckley

    Rita, you are an amazing inspiration to me and so many others. Keep charging and hi to all my OBX friends. I am still running, swimming and cycling if ever so slowly down here in Ocean Isle, NC. Hope to ride with you all again someday.

    Monday, Jul 17 @ 8:08 am