When I stopped by the State Finals for the North Carolina Senior Games track and field events in Durham, my first thought was that these people could run circles around my thirtysomething self. My second thought was that they were having a blast doing it.
The track and field State Finals in September was just one of dozens of tournaments that took place this fall, where more than 3,200 North Carolinians age 50 and older (some in their 90s!) competed for a chance to go to the 2017 National Senior Games in Birmingham, AL.
The range of sports in these games is as unique as the participants. There’s the usual stuff like swimming, tennis, basketball and bowling. And then there are the more unique events like bocce, pickleball (I had to Google that one), spin casting, and even cheerleading and visual arts.
While it’s definitely competitive, it’s not just about the competition. Executive Director of the NC Senior Games, Brad Allen, said the games are all about “Family, fun, fitness, fellowship and friends.”
The benefits of fellowship
Fellowship may be especially important for people in this age group. “You go through a lot of changes when you get older,” said Allen. “There are changes to your body, to your career, maybe you’ve even lost a spouse or partner. Getting older can be isolating. But if you can go out and meet a new friend at a Senior Games event, you’re no longer alone.”
Another perk of making new friends – you’ve lowered your risk of depression, which Allen said is one of the main undiagnosed illnesses for seniors.
In a recent study of NC Senior Games participants, 88 percent said they were more socially active because of the games. And 79 percent said they were more physically active, and spent an average of 6.6 hours each week involved in physical activity because of the games.
All shapes and sizes
More than 60,000 seniors – with a wide range of abilities – compete in local events throughout North Carolina which feed into the NC Senior Games. “We have people who are just getting started with exercising, and we have former Olympians. We have so many different activities that there’s a place for everyone. Diversity is one of the greatest strengths of the NC Senior Games,” said Allen.
At the track and field State Finals, I spoke with Elnora Thompson, who worked for the Cherokee Nation for 41 years before retiring. At 68, she has survived breast, thyroid and lung cancer. She said, “I didn’t start running until about 10 years ago. I had a friend in a running club, so I checked it out. After my first 5K, I was hooked.” Elnora now runs five days a week, training for 5K and 10K races throughout the state.
Mary Johnson from Sylva, NC was taking a breather when I asked her how she was feeling now that her event, the walk-race, was over. “Well, I finished!” she said with a laugh. She had slipped on some wet leaves a few days prior and had hurt her foot, but that didn’t stop her. “With getting older, you’ve just got to keep moving,” she said. So this 69-year-old walks three mornings a week with a group. “I enjoy the comradery and fellowship,” she said, “And it helps keep my arthritis under control.”
I also spoke with Betty Allgood from Winston-Salem, who is a celebrity of sorts in the NC Senior Games circuit. She’s 84 years old, and regularly wins the 1500 meter and the 5K walk-race for her age and gender category. She’s been to the National Games several times and will be heading to Birmingham next summer, after snagging another win this fall.
Betty got started with the NC Senior Games 24 years ago. She said, “I’ve done it for so long, but it’s still exciting.” Her favorite part? “The competition and staying fit. And all of the wonderful people I’ve met over the years. Everyone is so encouraging.” She walks four days a week to keep in winning shape.
A prescription for staying young
Every participant has their own story. Brad Allen, who meets thousands of new people at these games each year, can attest to that. “One of my favorite stories to tell is about William, who’s 83 – he can no longer walk, but he still swims competitively in the NC and National Senior Games. Someone has to help him out of his wheelchair and into the pool, but once he’s in the water, that’s his domain.”
I could listen to stories like that all day – about overcoming obstacles, being determined, and not letting a little thing like age get in the way. It seems the NC Senior Games has a prescription for keeping the common ailments of getting older, such as loneliness and inactivity, at bay.
On my way out of the track and field State Finals that day, I saw a bag with this saying on it: “We do not stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”
Thank you, NC Senior Games, for giving our state’s seniors a place to play.
NC Senior Games is a recipient of this year’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Month of Thanks donation of $5,000.