Don't let the gray hair and crow's feet fool you. The athletes who participate in the National Senior Games may all be 50 or older — but some of these folks can outperform whippersnappers half their age.

More than 12,000 athletes from around the country are expected to gather in the Twin Cities July 3 through 16 for the National Senior Games, an every-other-year event being held here for the first time. All competitors must be over 50; many are in their 60s and 70s and up. Some are approaching — maybe even past — the century mark.

They include serious athletes who hold national or even international records in their age categories.

"There are some athletes who are world-record holders and they're just unbelievable," said Jane Shallow of Crystal, a Senior Games veteran who plans to compete in basketball and javelin-throwing (see page 5). "And there's some, like me, who say, 'I can do the sport and I'm going to do the sport at whatever level I can manage.'"

"It's for everybody," said Beth Pinkney, executive director of the event. "You don't have to be a classy athlete — everybody can compete."

People get involved for different reasons, Pinkney said. Some are determined to win medals, some simply to do their best, some to socialize and have fun — or all of the above.

The atmosphere is both competitive and cooperative. Older athletes tend to be sociable, supportive and welcoming to newbies.

"The ones that compete help the ones who are new; it's pretty fun to watch, actually," Pinkney said. "They want everybody to do well, but they also want to win."

Senior athletes tend to keep in touch with each other over the years, she said, reuniting at national or state games or at other events. "They build friendships, they travel together, they go to the same events together."

Participants compete in their age brackets, divided by five-year increments, for gold, silver and bronze medals and ribbons. The 23 sports include track and field events, triathlon, archery, badminton, bowling, cycling, golf, horseshoes, racewalking and running, shuffleboard, swimming, tennis, table tennis, basketball, softball, volleyball and the ever-popular pickleball.

Many compete in multiple events, Pinkney said; she has seen people register for 10 different track-and-field competitions. "If time permits, they'll do the shot put, then they'll run the 50-yard dash."

To be eligible for the National Senior Games, participants must do well in their sport (in most cases, placing within the top four), in a state-level Senior Games during an even-numbered year. In other words, 2015 national participants qualified in 2014 state competitions. All states except North Dakota host games every year, and many allow participants from other states.

The 2015 Minnesota Senior Games will be May 28 to 31 in St. Cloud (for more information, look under "State Games" at

Events are scheduled at various locations, most in Minneapolis and St. Paul (find a schedule of event times and locations at Admission is free for spectators. A torch relay will start in Washington, D.C., at the end of June, arriving in St. Paul on July 3.

According to Pinkney's personal observations, senior athletes come in three varieties. Some "have been competing since Day One," in high school, college or even professionally (though the rules state that they can't have played professionally for at least 20 years to qualify in the Senior Games). Others have endured a heart attack or other health crisis and began a sport after their doctors advised them to become more active.

And still another group has been recently widowed or undergone some other major life transition. "They're seeking a new group of friendships or new activity because something has changed in their life."

Whatever their initial motivation, many took up their sports for the first time (or again) in midlife and discovered they were good at it. And they have the fitness to show for it, Pinkney said. "They're healthy, they're on very low medication. They're moving."

Our profiles of local competitors start on page 5.

Katy Read • 612-673-4583