Let the game begin: Profiles of senior athletes

  • Article by: KATY READ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 17, 2012 - 2:51 PM

Maybe you're an experienced long jumper. You've won medals nationally and internationally, are so dedicated to the sport that between competitions you train on a miniature jump in your backyard. Or maybe not.

Maybe you've never tried the long jump, or at least not since high school, which means you haven't flung yourself over a foul line for, well, getting close to half a century.

Whichever the case, go ahead: Take a running start, hurl yourself over that line, land with a thud in the sand. No matter how far you make it, as you stand and brush yourself off, the officials who stretch their tape measurers and record your distance will congratulate you with a hearty "Good jump!"

That's the Minnesota Senior Games, where some of the athletes have chests full of medals and others a bit of a pot belly. At the games, held this year in Mankato, May 31 through June 3, events include the usual Olympics-style events -- archery, basketball, swimming, track and field, and so on -- as well as a few less traditional sports, such as shuffleboard and pickleball. Competitors must be at least 50 years old, but there's no upper limit, and they range into their 90s, at least.

These senior athletes compete against others their age -- categories are divided in five-year segments -- but some could hold their own in a college or high-school match, said Susan Adams Loyd, 54, fundraising chair for the Minnesota games and a champion sprinter herself. "You watch some of the people who are in their 50s, 60s and 70s who are running faster than most people 20, 30, 40 years younger than they are."

But for many, it's not all about winning medals. "It's about the camaraderie," said Fritz Bukowski, recreation director for the City of Alexandria and state coordinator for the Minnesota games. "You meet people who are really, really positive people. They're not sitting around. Cyclists, runners, tennis players ... Everybody says they feel like they're 18 or 25 when they're at these games. "

That's exactly how Jim Schoffman put it. "You feel in your mind that you're still 18 when you're out there," he said. "You feel like you're flying."

Schoffman, 58, of Fridley, competed in several track and field events in Mankato. Though he has been sprinting competitively for years, he said, "the senior games does a great job of getting people in their 50s and 60s back into sports."

Bill Traetow can attest to that. When he heard that the 2013 Minnesota games will be held in Owatonna, where he lives, Traetow, 68, decided to drive to Mankato for this year's games. Having never done any track and field before, he planned just to watch.

"But when I got here, I thought, well, heck, I might as well try it," Traetow said, after completing a long jump. The people there were nice, willing to help out a newcomer. "Everybody's a good sport about everything."

Top finishers in games held during even-numbered years advance to the National Senior Games, held in alternate years (2013's nationals are in Cleveland). Minnesota games officials are getting the word out to encourage more people from the state to get involved. Qualifiers in the 2014 state games can compete in the 2015 national games, which will be held in the Twin Cities. The event is expected to draw 13,500 participants and 35,000 visitors, and to generate $40 million for the local economy.

For Jane and Jim Mills, senior games are a summer hobby -- a way to combine travel, socializing and physical activity. "We've been married for 55 years and we need something to do," said Jane, 73.

Many states, including Minnesota, open their games to nonresidents, so the Mills, who live in Farmland, Ind., drive from state to state competing: Jane in table tennis, shot put, volleyball and javelin throw; Jim in the high jump, long jump and shot put.

Their grandson's car, Jane said, is adorned with a bumper sticker: "My grandma is an athlete. What does your grandma do?"

Katy Read • 612-673-4583

Stuart Peterson, 65, Le Sueur, Minn.

Stuart Peterson was a conference champion in discus throw and shot put. But that was 42 years ago, when he was a student at Mankato State College. He hadn't touched either sport since then.

But when he heard that the 2012 senior games would be held not far from his home, he decided it was time to pick up those weighty projectiles and giving them another, well, shot.

"I got an itch and I had to scratch it," he said.

He spent about a month training, and wound up placing first in both events in his age group. "Which is -- mumble, mumble -- years old," he joked.

But winning wasn't really the point. Surrounded by friends and family, he was having fun just being there. Back in college, competing "was as serious as a heart attack," he said. Nowadays, "the competitive juices are still there, but they're not boiling."

Harold Bach, 92, Dickinso, N.D.

Harold Bach was doing his best to stay cheerful, but was clearly disappointed. Having traveled 600 miles to compete in the senior games, he made a tactical error, impulsively signing up for the long jump.

Jumping really isn't Bach's event; he's a sprinter. In the 20 years since he began running, at age 72, he has won 118 medals in six different states, including a number of golds. He set a world's record in his age group in the 50-meter run, he said: 10.5 seconds.

That day Bach jumped, landed wrong, pulled a muscle in his left leg.

"If I hadn't left that out, oh, I'd be having fun now," he said.

But Bach doesn't give up easily. He lived through four years of World War II getting "bombed and shot at," he said. Later, he beat lymphoma through chemotherapy and radiation, surprising his doctors.

So in Mankato, despite the pain in his leg, Bach doggedly insisted in competing in the sprints he had signed up for, despite knowing he'd make nowhere near his usual time. Sure enough, he lagged far behind the other competitors. But he kept plugging along until he crossed the finish line.

Would his injury prevent him from competing in the national senior games next year? Not likely.

"There are other states where you can qualify. I'll get to one of them."

Kay Glynn, 59, Hastings, Iowa

With her long blonde hair and her habit of springing spontaneous handstands to pass the time between pole vaults, Kay Glynn could be mistaken, from a distance, for a particularly high-energy college student.

"But up close ... ugh," she self-depricatingly joked, when she heard this.

Hardly. Even face-to-face, the 59-year-old from Hastings, Iowa, could pass for much younger. But what's even more impressive are her track-and-field skills. A decathlete and motivational speaker, Glynn competes in discus, shot put, javelin and high jump. She has participated in three national games, and holds a world record in pole vaulting.

Not bad for someone who did track and field back in high school, "then took a 30-year leave of absence." She got back into it when her children entered high school sports, Glynn said. She also, for the record, does dancing and acrobatics. And when she feels like it, she can execute a perfect splits.

Ready for the kicker? She does all this even though she needs a hip replacement.

"My hip is totally gone ... it's bone on bone," Glynn said cheerfully.

She had scheduled surgery for June, but was considering postponing in order to participate in another state games beforehand. She plans on being fully recovered by next July, so she can compete nationally in Cleveland.

She doesn't let her hip problems hinder her involvement in jumping and several other sports. She does, however, avoid running. And it's a good excuse to get out of shopping, which she doesn't enjoy.

"If I'm gonna walk all day and it's going to hurt, I might as well do something more fun," she said.

Carl Etter, 68, Duluth

Make no mistake, our cover photo athlete Carl Etter takes his track and field events seriously. He's been competing in state senior games for about 14 years, traveling to Roseville, Alexandria and this year Mankato, accumulating piles of medals in the long jump, the triple jump and the high jump, as well as sprints and javelin throws.

"At the national level, I can compete in jumps pretty good," said the trim and toned 68-year-old.

A one-time four-sport athlete in high school in Cherry, Minn., Etter has attended three senior nationals and a couple of internationals; he won a third-place medal in Edmonton, Canada, and second in Sydney, Australia. Between events, he runs on a track near his home in Duluth, and trains on a miniature long jump he set up in his back yard. He's already looking forward to the 2015 nationals in Minneapolis.

But athletics, Etter hastened to add, are only one part of a healthy, balanced life. He believes in combining physical activity, nutrition, church, community service and so on. Despite his medals, Etter doesn't like to focus too much on the competition aspect of the games.

"Don't get me wrong -- when the gun goes off, I go as fast as I can," he said. "But I don't worry about beating somebody. You do the best you can, and when it's over you give them a hug."

  • FEELING ATHLETIC?

    National Senior Games 2013

    Where: Cleveland, Ohio

    When: July 21 - August 1, 2013

    Conctact: www.nsga.com/2013-national-games

    Sports: Archery, Badminton, Basketball, Bowling, Cycling, Golf, Horseshoes, Pickleball, Race Walk, Racquetball, Road Race, Shuffleboard, Softball, Swimming, Table Tennis, Tennis, Track & Field, Triathlon, and Volleyball.

    Participating: You must be 50 years old and have qualified through an National Senior Games Association-affiliated state games in 2013. You may qualify through the state you live in, or any state that accepts non-resident competitors (for more information, contact those states directly -- contact information is on the national games' website).

    Minnesota Senior Games 2013

    Where: Owatonna, Minn.

    When: June 19-22, 2013

    Contact: ci.owatonna.mn.us/parksrecreation/senior-place/minnesota-senior-games

    Sports: Archery, Badminton, Basketball, Billiards, Bowling, Cross Country, Cycling, Golf, Horseshoes, Pickleball, Raquetball, Rifle/Shotgun/Pistol, Shuffleboard, Softball, Swimming, Table Tennis, Tennis, Track & Field and Vollyeball. Others may be available upon request.

    Participation: Again, you must be at least 50 years old. Competing in the 2013 games (as with all odd-numbered years) cannot qualify you to compete in the national games. Those wishing to compete in the 2015 national games in the Twin Cities should participate in the 2014 Minnesota Senior Games.

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