The National Senior Games (NSG) are back! The original 2021 dates were rescheduled to May 10-23, 2022, in Fort Lauderdale due to the pandemic. Athletes 50 and older are anxious for the return of what is now the largest qualified multisport competition in the world, with more competitors than the Olympic Games.
The NSG features competition in 22 sports in what has become a biennial celebration of health and wellbeing. “It’s the camaraderie and the friendships we develop over the years that keep us coming back,” says Brian Hankerson, a 67-year-old long jump national champion from Florida.
Cheryl Tubbs, a 62-year-old pickleball player from Delaware, agrees. “There’s a true spirit of community among competitors. You can go to any part of this country and they’re welcoming towards you. They invite you into their homes and share their bread with you.”
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re short or tall, big or small, old or young. There’s something for everybody,” adds 70-year-old Woody Dietrich, a discus thrower from Ohio. “You meet healthy and optimistic people and come away with lots of inspiration. It’s just the best thing.”
The NSG attracts athletes from all 50 states, but the one town or city with the largest number of entrants is The Villages, Florida. The Villages is the fastest-growing metro area in the country and the success of its athletes is not by accident. It’s by design. All the ingredients necessary to learn, improve, compete, and to win are designed into this master-planned community north of Orlando.
“Well, it’s just wonderful,” says 84-year-old Roger Vergin, a multi-sport superstar who didn’t know there was seniors or masters track until he was in his 70s. Since then, while living and training in The Villages, he’s won over 60 national championships and set dozens of records. “We’re able to get access to the track three times a week and most people can’t ever get on tracks.”
Madelaine “Tiny” Cazel was the Florida State Athlete of the Year in 2003 and hasn’t slowed down. Now 85, Cazel believes one of the biggest factors in the success of athletes from The Villages is easy access to coaching. “We have incredible coaches who help us learn and train while many, if not most, older athletes are on their own.”
Joanne Lord, a volleyball player in her 50s, agrees that facilities and coaching are important but to her, it’s being surrounded by like-minded teammates. “I’ve been here for three years,” Lord told us. “People in The Villages are excited about being together on a team and being healthy. That’s really the biggest part of it. Everybody I play with is very active and extremely healthy. We encourage one another to keep going. I’m in two dance troops and on two sports teams. It’s a lot of fun with a lot of nice people.”
“The Villages is an athlete’s heaven,” says 68-year-old swimmer Bob Jennings. “We have a running club, a triathlon club, biking clubs, a swim team and just about everything else you can imagine.” That’s an understatement. The Villages has nearly 3,000 official clubs, dozens of sports, and hundreds of teams. “This is paradise,” adds Cazel. “We went to North Carolina, California, Arizona, and several places in Florida looking for our retirement home. When we visited The Villages, I said to my husband, ‘This is it. Our search is over. We’re not going anywhere. This is where I want to stay.’”
For most who attend the National Senior Games, winning isn’t a realistic goal but that’s not why they come. The main appeal is simply socializing around a shared passion for active living. They’ll share tips, encouragement, and laughs. They’ll share stories about past competitions and make plans to get together at future events.
When asked about the emotional connection that forms among older athletes, tears began rolling down the cheeks of Sandy Garner, the Florida State Athlete of the Year. “As I age, I would like to remain active and enjoy life,” she said. “I don’t want to wind up in a nursing home with people taking care of me. I want to keep playing for as long as I can.” For most, that’s the real goal. As George Bernard Shaw first said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”
And as Gordon Ralph, a 90-year-old swimmer from The Villages points out, if you keep going long enough, eventually you just might find yourself on the top of the podium. “I follow one rule,” he says. “Outlive the competition. So now, I’m the only one. I’m going to get six golds!”