Gray grit: boom times for Senior Games

Updated: July 4, 2007, 3:10 PM ET
Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Margaret "Marnie" Evans ducked her head, accepted the gold medal around her neck and shook the hand of the presenter as Olympic theme music blared from the speakers.

Then, with a quick wave to no one in particular, the 95-year-old former schoolteacher hopped down and headed for the door, hardly drained from her six discus throws in the early morning heat at the University of Louisville throws field.

Like most of the thousands of 50-plus athletes in this year's Summer National Senior Games, there's always something else to do.

"Stay alive as long as you live," she said, her Louisiana drawl perfected from nearly a century in the Bayou.

After 20 years dominating the competition in everything from the 100-meter dash to the javelin, Evans isn't even thinking about slowing down.

She's not the only one. The Senior Games are booming, thanks in large part to people like Evans, who are knocking down stereotypes one shot-put, 3-pointer or javelin throw at a time.

What started with just more than 2,500 athletes in St. Louis 20 years ago has grown into a sprawling two-week celebration. This year's games feature over 12,000 athletes -- more than the 2004 Summer Olympics -- in 18 sports. And while some of them -- golf, bowling and shuffleboard -- are the kind of activities found in a retirement community, the Senior Games are hardly a country-club affair.

The vast majority of athletes -- please, try not to use the word "senior" -- who gather for the biennial games are just as competitive as the Olympians they watch on TV.

Even though Evans was assured a gold medal in the discus for women 95 and up -- she was the only one entered -- she was a little disappointed with her performance. It's not about the medals -- she added No. 110 in the javelin the next day, setting a national age-group record with a throw of almost 12 feet -- as much as it is about challenging herself.

"I fell yesterday. I hurt my knuckle," she said, pointing to a bruise on her right index finger. "I think that may have slowed me down a bit."

It may be the only thing that does. Evans still lives on her own on her family's plantation near Clinton, La., about 40 minutes north of Baton Rouge. She drives into town three times a week to lead exercise classes at a nursing home and trains for the games by meeting with a local high school track and field coach and going over her technique.

Ask her why she still comes to the games when she's more than earned the right to sit on the porch at Spring Hill -- the plantation her family has owned since the mid-1800s -- and she just laughs.

"I don't get tired, my legs just give out on me," she said. "Besides, I've made so many friends."

If she makes it to the 2009 event in San Francisco, she'll have even more. National Senior Games Association chairman Phil Godfrey expects 15,000 athletes to make it to the Bay Area, as the Baby Boomer generation that made getting healthy fashionable heads toward retirement.

"The image of aging is changing," Godfrey said. "Our fastest growing demographics are athletes in their 60s, and I think that's just going to get bigger as boomers become more involved."

The games are designed to straddle the line between competition and camaraderie. While Godfrey happily accepts the growing number of elite athletes who train who year round, the games' mission goes far beyond age-group records and gold medals.

"We want our athletes to be role models for the other seniors in their community," he said. "It's about showing the importance of getting exercise. We're redefining the words senior and aging."

Godfrey points to the explosion in the number of local senior games -- more than 300 and counting -- and the fact that 90,000 seniors competed to qualify for this year's games as proof that the message is being received.

"The best thing that happens for us isn't when they're here and they're competing and winning and having a great time," he said. "It's when they get back home and they tell their friends about what they did and they urge them to get involved."

The word is spreading. The first European Senior Games will be held in the Netherlands in two years. If they prove successful, Godfrey envisions a series of continental games and then who knows?

Given the improvements in nutrition and health care and the increased evidence of the power of exercise in offsetting aging, the 53-year-old Godfrey said the first Senior Olympics may happen within his lifetime.

"I think it might be sooner rather than later," Godfrey said.

Until then he'll point to senior athletes like Charles Modlin as proof of the power of the games. The 82-year-old from New Castle, Ind., didn't get serious about running until after retiring, and kept running through two bouts of cancer. He won the men's 80-84 100-meter dash last week and has broken numerous age-group records during his competitive career.

Yet for every hard-charging Modlin, there's an Evans or a Dorothy Riordan. Riordan is 95 and didn't start swimming until 65. Thirty years later, the Louisville woman is still going strong, rising three times a week to practice with a Masters Swim team in southern Indiana.

Riordan completed the 100-meter individual medley in just more than five minutes last week, though the time is hardly the point. She suffers from macular degeneration and is legally blind.

"I get in there and I think I'm just going to do the best I can," she said. "You've just got to go out and do it. That's what this is all about. There's no reason everyone can't get involved."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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