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Thousands of Older Americans Gather in Palo Alto for National Sports Competition

Events range from triathalons and tennis to shuffleboard and horseshoes

About 10,000 men and women ages 50 to 100 have descended on sunny Palo Alto, outside San Francisco, to run, jump, throw, kick, serve, shoot and shuffle their way through the 2009 Summer National Senior Games, for the next two weeks. They make up the largest field in the history of this event, which has been held biennially since 1987.

And the attractions of the Golden State may have something to do with those big numbers.

This is the first time the games have been held in California, and “that’s a big deal,” says Anne Warner Cribbs, president and CEO of the local organizing group for the games. “We have fabulous facilities, and the weather … I think people are going to love it.”

Cribbs brings a special credibility to this event. In 1960 she won a gold medal in swimming as part of the U.S. women’s 400-meter medley relay team in the Olympic Games in Rome.

Her Olympic experience, Cribbs says, gives her some understanding of other athletes. Her age, 64, gives her some empathy for those who continue to compete, even when neither national pride nor money is at stake—even at an age when, not long ago, they would have been scoffed at or scolded for attempting athletic feats.

“They’re inspired to compete no matter how old they are, no matter how much a knee or a shoulder hurts,” says Cribbs, who still swims regularly for fitness. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we celebrate these athletes?’ ”

Venues with style and history

One answer: Bring them to a beautiful leafy campus to compete, which Cribbs and her local organizing group have done. Stanford University in Palo Alto will be the site of 17 of the events. The games will include 18 medal events and six demonstration sports. Stanford venues include the Avery Aquatic Center, which has hosted many national swimming and diving championships; Stanford Stadium, site of Super Bowl XIX in 1985; the Taube Tennis Center, where John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Venus and Serena Williams have played; and the 7,233-seat Maples Pavilion, where spectators have watched many NCAA basketball and volleyball games.

One event to be held off campus is the swim-bike-run triathlon—an event that first started in California in the 1970s. That competition will be staged at nearby Redwood City’s port on San Francisco Bay and overseen by Terry Davis, the man in charge of the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, a 28-year-old, nationally televised event in which competitors swim from the famous former prison across San Francisco Bay.

The Senior Games triathlon will be an impressively strenuous contest.

Not just about competition

Still, while the games may be directed by a past Olympian and boast an Olympics-like, two-week calendar of sports, it’s a more relaxed affair.

“Our grandchildren are all out in the Bay Area,” says Bill Engle, a 78-year-old track runner from Dublin, N.H., who is competing along with his wife, Kathy. “We’re looking forward to visiting and having them see us run.”

The key is that the Engles are running, because participating in fitness activities is really the name of the games, says Phil Godfrey, 55, president and CEO of the National Senior Games Association, the governing body for these games and the state Senior Olympics. “It’s about getting somebody off the couch and into some regular exercise,” he says. “We use … sports to get them to do that.” Sports like track and field, road running, triathlons, tennis, basketball and bicycling all help older adults stay fit.

From serious shuffleboard on up

But horseshoes and shuffleboard? While they may be fun for a lazy summer afternoon, don’t these events—also included on the Senior Games program—do more to perpetuate a stereotype of doddering old age rather than vigorous, healthy aging?

“The people who pitch horseshoes are very, very good,” Godfrey says. “And a cruise ship shuffleboard player would get creamed here. They’re very skilled competitors.”

Godfrey says horseshoes and shuffleboard were originally included as a way to attract more participants. Now, he concedes, the games are “trying to move towards more vigorous forms of exercise where they make sense.”

And there are, in fact, some outstanding older athletes coming to Palo Alto. Godfrey says he expects about a half dozen world age-group records to be set in the next two weeks, particularly in sports such as archery, swimming, and track and field.

Some avoid the games, others head to California

Today, there is an uneasy truce at the games between recreational and competitive sports. This mix of events leaves some athletes questioning the seriousness of the games, prompting them to skip the national event altogether. Organizers hope the addition of some new and more vigorous sports, including water polo and soccer, which are being contested here for the first time, may help change some of the negative perceptions.

To participate in the games, men and women must first qualify at state or regional meets, also known as the Senior Olympics, by taking one of the top three spots in their event or by meeting minimum performance standards.

But that doesn’t convince Rick Hansen, a 61-year-old, nationally ranked sprinter from Dix Hills, N.Y., who has run times that would easily qualify him for the National Senior Games. He opted not to enter the games after watching the local Senior Olympics.

“You’ve got really fit people whacking tennis balls and overweight people doing ring toss,” Hansen says. “It doesn’t seem to sync.” For Hansen, events such as USA Track & Field’s National Masters Championships, held last month, are far more prestigious.

But other accomplished athletes aren’t deterred by the unorthodox mix of events and competitors. Patricia Cericola of Austin, Texas, a 52-year-old triathlete who regularly competes in open triathlons, is looking forward to the games: “Basically I’m going to have fun,” she says.

A program director with IBM, she’s competing at the request of her parents, Fred and Sara Cericola of Albuquerque, N.M., who are entered in tennis and table tennis events.

“When I was having my 50th birthday party in Texas, they came down and joked, ‘Now you can do Senior Olympics with us,’ ” says Cericola. At the Senior Games, 141 athletes will be competing against her in the triathlon; and whether or not they can all swim, bike and run as well as Cericola isn’t what’s really important.

“It’s all about participation,” says Walter Bortz, M.D., a retired professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and a senior health expert, who is a consultant to the games. “It’s not how fast you go, it’s about staying the course.”

Health and fitness writer John Hanc teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury.

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