From August 1-15, the United States National Senior Games (formerly the National Senior Olympics) will be held at Stanford University and other Bay Area venues in Northern California. Nearly 13,000 athletes aged 50 to 100+ years will compete in 18 medal sports and 7 exhibition sports.
Medal sports include archery, badminton, basketball, bowling, cycling, golf, horseshoes, race walk, racquetball, road race, shuffleboard, softball, swimming, table tennis, track & field, triathalon, and volleyball. Exhibition sports include equestrian, fencing, lawn bowling, rowing, sailing, soccer and water polo.
Athletes compete within their age groups, which are arranged in 5 year increments. Individuals participating in the National Senior Games in August first qualified for this honor by earning 1st or 2nd place medals in their events at their individual state senior games this past year.
Since the first National Senior Games, which took place in St. Louis in 1987 with 2500 athletes competing, interest and participation in sports in the later years has grown. Researchers estimate that more 500,000 seniors now compete at local, state and national levels.
Some have called this growing interest the “Senior Sports Movement.” Initially, only men and women who had participated in sports and physical activity their entire lives were involved in this movement. Now, people who may have participated in sports off and on -- and even those who had never tried sports (especially older women) -- are getting interested and trying them out.
In my senior sports movement research in the 1990’s, I received a letter from a 67 year old woman. She said a friend of hers told her how much fun she was having competing in track and field events. My letter writer tried the long jump and enjoyed it so much that she had a long jump run and sand landing pit installed in her back yard. She competed at her state senior games, came in second, and qualified to compete at the national games. Her only complaint was that she wished she had a good coach. She also said that since she was a tax payer she should be allowed to use the local high school track facilities to train in. I thought she had a good point!
When you attend the National Senior Games, whether as a participant, volunteer or spectator, the first thing that strikes you is that everyone is smiling. Everyone is extremely happy to be there. Don’t let the smiles fool you though; every athlete is extremely serious about their competition and their performance. Competition is intense at every venue. I’ve witnessed 80 year old women basketball players throwing elbows and knocking their opponents to the ground in an effort to get rebounds.
Another aspect of the senior games that is striking is that many of the participants have had to navigate serious health issues on their way to qualifying for their events. For example, one swimmer I talked with had battled cancer, a heart disorder, and also the death of his spouse. Fortunately, sports added important elements to his life, including social support, confidence-building “victories,” physical activity and health. I watched him set a record in the 1,000 meter freestyle swim event for his age group (75-80 yrs).
The National Senior Games Association (NSGA), a nonprofit agency established in 1997, is behind the events. NSGA’s mission is to promote healthy lifestyles for seniors through fitness and sports. The NSGA website includes information about the senior games, including how to compete in your own state event and qualify for the nationals. The site also shows a short video about senior athletes. My personal opinion of this video is that they spent too long depicting younger seniors (i.e., ages 50-55) and not enough time on older seniors. However, the video may be inspirational for some. Click here to watch the video.
Watching older adults participate and compete in sports is truly inspirational. These individuals accurately reflect what’s possible physically, functionally, and gracefully as we age. Their performances make it impossible for us to accept the old stereotypes about aging. Observe, volunteer, or participate—senior sports will bring you joy.
Constance McCloy, PT, EdD