Yes, they pitch horseshoes and play shuffleboard at the National Senior Games. But this 13-day event, which begins Friday in the Twin Cities, isn’t your grandfather’s sports festival — unless your grandfather is a triathlete, javelin thrower or point guard.
Stereotype-busting is not among the 19 medal sports and two demonstration events at the Games, an Olympic-style competition for men and women ages 50 and older. Still, the perception they are fusty or frail is likely to take a big hit, as nearly 10,000 golden-agers go for gold in everything from three-on-three basketball to archery to pickleball to disc golf. Their message is that no matter how many miles are on their muscles, sports can provide lifelong nourishment to both body and spirit.
Local organizers estimate the National Senior Games will draw 30,000 competitors and spectators and could generate as much as $35 million in economic impact. Susan Adams Loyd, co-chair of the local organizing committee and a world-ranked masters runner, is just as excited about the cultural impact.
“For me, competing in the National Senior Games was a life-changing experience,’’ said Loyd, 57, who is registered for six events in track and field. “It will be really satisfying to bring this event to my hometown. We’re hoping it will leave a lasting imprint of good health and happiness, and that people will regard aging in a completely different way.’’
A diverse cast of athletes will provide the inspiration. John Zilverberg, of South Dakota, who will turn 102 in August, is expected to be the oldest person to compete; he has won seven gold medals in track and field and bowling at previous National Senior Games. The oldest of Minnesota’s 869-athlete delegation is Chuck Supplee, of Bloomington, 96, a tennis player who will team with 93-year-old Ray Ranallo, of Minneapolis, in men’s doubles.
Other Minnesotans include Pat Lillehei, 71, who is entered in six swimming races and the triathlon; Dorothy Peterson, 92, a competitor in three table tennis events; and Sherwood Sagedahl, 76, whose nine track and field events include the long jump, javelin and 1,500 meters.
“I think our perception of age is changing a lot,’’ said Beth Pinkney, executive director of the 2015 National Senior Games. “Seeing what these people are doing makes you think getting older is pretty cool.’’
The National Senior Games began in 1987, drawing 2,500 athletes to St. Louis to compete in 15 sports. They quickly took off from there. Held every other year, the Games have become a magnet for seniors from around the country; the 2013 edition in Cleveland attracted 10,800 competitors, including 111 from Minnesota.
The Twin Cities were chosen in 2010 as hosts, after a group chaired by Loyd and public relations consultant Dave Mona submitted a bid to bring the festival to Minnesota for the first time. The Senior Games will use 18 venues in Minneapolis, St. Paul and four suburbs, including the University of St. Thomas (track and field, basketball, 1,500-meter race walk); the State Fairgrounds (20k and 40k cycling, 5k and 10k runs); the University of Minnesota (swimming, tennis, racquetball); and the Minneapolis Convention Center (badminton, pickleball, shuffleboard, table tennis, volleyball and judo). About 2,500 volunteers will keep things running.
Competitors are split into age groups, divided by five-year increments, and must qualify for the National Senior Games a year in advance at an officially sanctioned state competition. Mona predicted spectators will be “shocked’’ at the quality of the performances, based on what he has seen at previous state and national events.
“I was in the pace car in Cleveland for cycling, and we were going about 30 miles an hour,’’ he said. “I thought, ‘We must be leaving them behind.’ But they were right behind us — and these were the 60- to 64-year-olds. It’s absolutely remarkable. And it’s so competitive. It’s a real eye-opener.’’
Some in the Senior Games have been athletes for much of their lives. Bloomington’s Cal Schadel, 86, played minor league baseball in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization; now a tennis player, he also taught himself to throw the javelin by using an old pool cue and will compete in both sports. The Sjoquist twins of Cannon Falls, Lynnette and Lynnea, were women’s basketball pioneers with the all-American Redheads in the 1970s and will again play before an audience at age 62.
Others came to sports late in life — including many who were motivated by the prospect of making the Senior Games. Like many women competing in the event, Loyd grew up in an era with few sports opportunities for girls. At a friend’s retirement party 12 years ago, she was asked whether she had any regrets in life, and she said she had always wanted to be a sprinter.
Once the laughter stopped, she decided it was not too late to try. She went home, found information online about the Senior Games and went to the track the next day. Loyd, of Edina, is currently ranked in the top three in the 100, 200 and 400 meters among American women age 55-59.
“I was 45 when I started, and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait until I turn 50,’ ’’ said Loyd, a longtime media executive. “I was going to be in good enough shape to qualify for the Senior Games, come hell or high water. To be able to be over 50 and in good enough shape to compete, it’s rekindled a dream. It came true decades late, but here I am.’’
Ready to inspire
Senior Games athletes run the gamut, from those who bring coaches and personal trainers to those who compete primarily for fun, fitness and fellowship. Robert and DeEtte Andersen, of Plymouth, began running in their 50s and have raced all over the country — including Grandma’s Marathon and the Twin Cities Marathon — but no longer keep track of their times. “We’re not fast, but it doesn’t matter,’’ said DeEtte, 80. “We enjoy it, and we’ve met so many wonderful people.’’
This year’s National Senior Games will include cancer survivors and athletes with hip or knee replacements. Spouses and siblings will compete, as will parents from the Greatest Generation and their baby-boomer children. There will be athletes who have competed in all 15 editions and people from all 50 states.
Pinkney said the Twin Cities area was a natural fit for the National Senior Games. The metro area offers the good public transportation that seniors favor — more than 4,000 transit passes were sold in advance — along with many high-quality sports venues in proximity to one another. Its excellent medical care and health-conscious reputation also worked in its favor.
Mona expects the Senior Games to show off the Twin Cities to a key tourism demographic: retirees who have money to spend and time to spend it. While he hopes the area makes an impression on the athletes, he anticipates they will leave an impression, too.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see an 84-year-old high jumper,’’ Mona said. “Some day, I think this event will lose shuffleboard and horseshoes, which is how a lot of people define what old people do.
“I hope this sets an example for people who are sedentary, making them think, ‘That could be me.’ You can’t help but be inspired.’’