Let The Senior Games Begin!
It’s never too late to win a gold medal
Come July 7th this year, thousands of athletes will converge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to compete at the 19th edition of the National Senior Games (NSG).
But they aren’t the young and brawny sports figures featured in every-day media. They are baby boomers and beyond, striving for an active life and defying the ravages of time.
Since 1987, these late-life warriors have gathered every two years at a different location around the country to break records, make new friends, and reconnect with old ones.
“The NSG has now grown to become the world’s largest Olympic-style qualified multisport event,” says Sue Hlavacek, Interim CEO at the NSG Association.
Adjusted for age, many of them could easily be in the Olympics. At the Michigan Senior Games in 2021, 100-year-old Diane Friedman was the talk of the Track & Field circuit when she broke the world record in the 100m and 200m dash for her age group.
Diane ran the 100m in 36.71 seconds and the 200m in 1:29:78. She broke the prior record in the 100m by 3 seconds, which was set in 2019 by 103-year-old Julia Hawkins of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
As a point of reference, the current record for women in the 100m and 200m sprints is 10.49 and 21.34 seconds, respectively, both set by Florence Griffith-Joyner at the Seoul Games in 1988.
Handicapping for age in a straight-line calculation, Diane beat Florence by a fraction of a second; the Olympian was 28 years old when she set the 100m mark. But in the 200m stretch, Diane came short and Florence won by 14 seconds.
As if Diane’s sprinting wasn’t impressive enough, she threw the javelin 6.25 meters for a new American distance. An avid participant in Track & Field events, she competed in her 70s, broke records in her 90s, and was featured twice in “Sports Illustrated" magazine.
Similar to the Olympics, the NSG are sanctioned qualifying events that offer individuals and teams a chance to win gold, silver and bronze. However, entrants must be at least 50 years old and the age group categories are divided into 5-year increments.
In 2017, the NSG celebrated its 30th anniversary in Birmingham, Alabama with over 10,000 sportsmen and women. Humana, the health insurance company, has been the biggest sponsor at the nationals. Locally, universities have donated their athletic facilities for the events.
The original Games were the brainchild of Warren Blaney, a Los Angeles businessman who staged the first ‘Senior Olympix’ in 1970.
Over the next decade, the movement spread with the explosion of fitness in America and by 1987, the national tournaments were launched in St. Louis, Missouri.
2,500 athletes showed up to compete in 15 different sports. An estimated 100,000 spectators attended the opening ceremonies, which included actor and entertainer Bob Hope.
Two years later, 3,400 athletes heeded the call and the Games made the New York Times, ESPN, and Good Morning America.
Since then, the athletic extravaganza has been held biennially in different cities across the country, ranging from Tucson, Arizona to Syracuse, New York.
In Fort Lauderdale in 2022 (postponed from 2021 due to COVID), the most popular sports were softball, pickleball, and Track & Field. The largest competing age category was 65-69 and the over-90 group saw as many as 133 athletes.
Last year, the NSG Cup was also introduced as an added bonus. Awarded to the state that wins the most medals per athlete, the NSG Cup levels the playing field between large and small states.
Washington, DC won the inaugural Cup with a medal percentage of 85% (40 athletes earning 34 medals), followed by Nevada at 81% and Washington at 78%.
84-year-old Kathy Bergen started competing in 1995 after her husband read an article about the qualifiers near their home in Glendale, California. The couple has since attended each of the events.
In 2019, Kathy was the most decorated athlete in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which saw nearly 14,000 athletes vie for titles, the most in NSG history. She currently holds 42 American records and 28 World records in various Track & Field tournaments.
Raised in New York, the health and fitness enthusiast was athletic but not an athlete. She recalls her early years before Title IX opened up sports for young women in high school and college (1972):
“I was very athletic, but growing up in Brooklyn in the 40s and 50s there were few opportunities for girls.”
From its inception, the mission of the NSG has been to promote healthy lifestyles for older adults through education, fitness and sport.
“The biggest challenge for older people is getting out of that chair”, says Dr. Bruce Sherman, an exercise physiologist who coached Diane.
Athletes still need to qualify in the State Senior Games and meet specific criteria in order to make the nationals. But Sherman suggests that before jumping in and selecting an event, seniors should seek clearance from their doctor.
Bone and muscle strength, as well as sound balance and good eyesight, are key to avoiding injuries. Even for seniors who lead active lives, training should be tailored to the individual’s physical condition.
In the case of Diane, Sherman prescribed a cardiovascular and muscle-building regimen using the treadmill, elliptical, dumbbells, and medicine balls.
Kathy stays in shape by doing running workouts every other day and high jumps once or twice a week. She had her share of sports injuries such as pulled muscles, but nothing more serious.
She tried all sports disciplines except for the pole vault and learned quickly that she needed to focus on just a few if she wanted to top the podium.
“Let’s face it, it’s great winning medals,” she laughs. “But to be any good you have to work hard.”
73-year-old Larry DeLucas is a newcomer to the senior challenges. A bioresearch scientist, he spent 14 days in space on the Columbia Shuttle back in 1992 and still works full time.
An instant convert to the NSG, he explains “It’s a way to make you more active, which is good as you get older because your muscles don’t do what they used to.”
Larry won team gold in basketball at the Alabama state championship, but his titanium knees are holding him back from taking his hoops skills to the national level.
He decided on bowling and corn hole as his next events in Pittsburgh. He placed 4th with a partner in doubles bowling last year, but this time around he hopes to pick up a medal.
“I’m an avid bowler even though I can’t throw the ball as well as I used to, and my average has gone down.”
But more than anything, it’s the fun and camaraderie that draws most people to the NSG, which also offer seniors a chance to travel, sample local culture, and engage socially.
At the Albuquerque Games, after the torch arrived to ignite the ceremonial cauldron, the evening was followed by “Noche de Fuego” song and dance festivities.
Kathy and her husband made many friends over the years. “There is a nice bunch of women my age scattered around the country and it’s fun keeping in touch with everyone.”
Says Larry, “I would love to win a medal but all I really care about is meeting new people and having a lot of fun.”
Offering older adults an exciting outlet to stay active and interact socially, the NSG has helped shift the paradigm of what it means to be a senior today.
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