In an earlier article, I discussed the Washington State Senior Games currently underway throughout the South Puget Sound area. Washington, along with 49 other states and the District of Columbia, is affiliated with the National Senior Games Association. For nearly 30 years this nonprofit organization has provided seniors a national stage on which to compete and is now leading the effort to demonstrate that seniors at any age can achieve their “personal best.”
The passion Marc T. Riker brings to his role as CEO of the National Senior Games Association (NSGA) is evident when he describes and the athletes who inspire him and the effect sports has on seniors’ lives.
One of these athletes is a 93-year-old New Mexico man who Riker needed to reach, but the phone went unanswered after repeated attempts to reach him. When the man called back, he apologized, explaining that he had been busy painting his house. During their conversation, he proudly shared with Riker a birthday tradition he started after turning 90—taking a 100-mile bike ride annually. Another athlete is a woman who discovered she enjoyed swimming and has since competed in and won many senior games competitions despite being legally blind. Her experiences in sports competition had such a positive impact on her life that she started a foundation to enable other seniors in her city to enjoy the same benefits.
These athletes demonstrate what Riker hopes other seniors will discover— that sports is not just for super-jocks and “anyone can do it at any point in [their] life.”
The National Senior Games Association had its start in St. Louis, Mo. in 1985 when seven men and women formed the National Senior Olympics Organization with a vision “to promote healthy lifestyles for adults through education, fitness and sport.”
Drawing upon the support of other groups who were organizing senior games in their respective states, the first formal National Senior Olympic Games was held in 1987 in St. Louis with 2,500 participants aged 50 and older. At this time, the NSGA formally incorporated and set up its governing body. It was at its second National Games in 1989 that the event “really hit the road running” thanks to increased media exposure about our organization, Riker explains.
Nearly 30 years later, the NSGA expects 12,000 participants to compete in its 2015 games. The games are biennial, with the even numbered years being qualifying years. Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have senior game organizations affiliated with the NSGA, and the seniors who compete in their state games can qualify for the national games. Some states are closed, meaning that only in-state seniors can compete, but most are all-inclusive, allowing those from other areas to compete—which, Riker says, is pretty cool. And even the National Games are all-inclusive, he adds, with seniors from 10 different countries having competed in the 2013 games.
What sets the National Games apart from other competitions is that all events are open to both men and women. Over the years the number of female participants has increased, with some women having always competed in a sport while others are latecomers. Participants range from those in their 50s to those 100 years old and travel from all over to participate. It is the comradery amongst the participants that make the games “really kind of fun to put together,” Riker says
Of the seniors who qualify at their state-level games, Riker estimates one-third will make the trip to compete in the National Games. But having every qualifying senior compete in the National Games is not the “end mission” of NSGA. “Some people just want to participate in local community events” and that is fine, he says, elaborating that “the most important thing is that we want to see more aging adults up and active.”
Recognizing that more needed done to promote active living, the NSGA started the Personal Best Program in 2013 to recognize senior athletes who personified the spirit of active healthy living. Last year they recognized 16 athletes, and Riker was pleased by how well the program was received at a nine-stop tour the NSGA conducted to publicize the initiative. “Each event was really powerful and successful. Now we’re asked, ‘When are you coming to our state?’ We hope that people feel inspired to say ‘if this person can do this, I can do it too’ and to spread the message that anyone can be involved in a sport,” he explains. “It’s been a lot of fun recognizing people for what they have done.”
And it is not only seniors who are motivated to see the physical accomplishments of their peers. At the 2013 National Senior Games in Cleveland, Ohio presented by Humana, Riker says the college and high school volunteers were “surprised at what they saw. They just couldn’t believe it,” he explains, adding that several of the young men even said they could not wait until they were 50 so they could compete.
Though Riker was not a senior when he joined NSGA, he is now and describes the organization as a group of people who are passionate about their work. “It is the end result of seeing that you are making a difference” and the NSGA is one piece of the puzzle to inspire seniors to live a healthy lifestyle, he adds.
This passion will support the NSGA during its next 30 years because participation at the state and national level is expected to increase with more people in their 40s and 50s consciously engaged in an active lifestyle which will continue into their 60s and beyond. “They don’t want to be playing board games” and it is fascinating to hear that senior centers and YMCAs are adapting their programs to accommodate these active seniors,” Riker says. “It is a very dynamic change.”
For seniors who think they are too old to participate in a sport, much less compete, Riker encourages them not to think that way: “It’s not too late to get started…there’s a place to get involved.”
To learn more about the NSGA and their Personal Best Program, visit www.NSGA.com and sign up to receive the free monthly e-newsletter.
Andrea Watts is content writer for SeniorHomes.com. In addition to covering senior living, she also writes on sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWest, The Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.