The National Senior Games is the largest multi-sport qualifying event in the entire world. It has more participants than the Olympics, or any competing masters sporting organization.
The National Senior Games Association (NSGA) has been hosting the biennial event since 1987, and seen rapid growth in popularity, attendance, and exposure over the past few years as cultural norms have shifted to a focus on longevity, increased healthspan, and lifestyle modification through activities such as organized sports.
With an eye towards the future and maintaining its momentum, the NSGA aptly named Sue Hlavacek its new president and chief executive officer. Hlavacek, who boasts more than a decade of experience within the organization, is fresh off a successful 2023 National Senior Games in Pittsburgh as the NSGA’s interim CEO, where more than 11,500 athletes from age 50 to 100 competed.
“One of the ways I measure success is hearing how great an experience is for our athletes,” Hlavacek told Growing Bolder. “The athletes responded through letters, emails, and surveys and have told us what a great experience they’ve had. We’re seeing the number of athletes continue to rise every two years. Also, the economic impact that we are able to leave the city is critical. We just left a $32 million impact to the city of Pittsburgh.”
Hlavacek, who had previously held the role of chief operating officer, is the first woman to ever lead the NSGA in its over 30-year history. She’s excited about the way organized sports for older adults has aligned with recent cultural trends of focusing on healthy aging with lifestyle choices.
“I’m thankful to have this opportunity the continue the mission of active aging for adults 50 plus,” Hlavacek said. “I’m looking forward to creating new initiatives for seniors, and there are unlimited opportunities here to expand our mission further. Whether it’s adding different sports or creating stronger health and wellbeing programming, our goal is to get everyone active and off the couch and moving, to spread the message of what is possible when you live your personal best in your later years.
“I also want people to know that it’s never too late to get started. A lot of our athletes had never even participated in sports until they turned 50. A lot of the females before Title IX didn’t have an opportunity to participate at all. It’s a great opportunity for anyone to stay active throughout their older years, whether they have experience as an athlete or not.”
The National Senior Games offer competition in more than 20 organized sports every two years, including pickleball, volleyball, swimming, track & field, table tennis and more. Hlavacek believes the social benefits of the competition are just as important as the impact the competition has on the athletes’ bodies.
“One of the greatest attractions of our competition is the camaraderie and the socialization for the members that join. You’ll see the more experienced athletes helping the athletes that have never stepped on a track or played basketball,” Hlavacek said. “It’s very powerful, to feel like they’re a part of something bigger, a part of something they’re all experiencing at one time with 12,000 other athletes. It’s almost like a sorority or a fraternity where they become a member of a group, and I think it has such a positive impact for them.”
During her one-on-one with Growing Bolder’s Marc Middleton, Hlavacek, a former women’s professional basketball player in the Women’s Professional Basketball League, and a college and high school hall of fame member, wouldn’t commit to being a competing athlete at the next games.
“I would love to compete, Marc but I just feel I have too many other items to be concerned with,” Hlavacek laughed. “I would love to be a competing athlete again. Hopefully someday I will be. I always do get recruited to play basketball, but I haven’t taken the step yet. But maybe someday.”
For those who are eager for the next chance to compete with other athletes over 50, Hlavacek and the NSGA have announced that the 2025 games will take place in Iowa.
“We are very excited they are going to be in Des Moines. They are very enthusiastic about bringing our event to their city. The people in Des Moines are phenomenal. Traveling around the city is a huge plus for our athletes. The venues, the airports, and the restaurants are all within a 15-minute drive, so the city is ready to wrap their arms around us and we’re already in the planning process with them.”
While the next national games are in 2025, there’s no off year for athletes, who must qualify at their local games in 2024 in order to compete in Iowa. For those looking to get off the couch and get in the games, visit NSGA.com/state-games-information and register for a state competition.