Going for the Gold in the Golden Years: Super senior athletes from La Jolla compete in local Olympics

By Mera Kelley

Life begins at 50, or so it seemed for more than 1,700 athletes and 125 volunteers in San Diego for the city’s 25th annual Senior Olympics, which were held in September. Some contestants were more than 100 years young! Competition takes place throughout the nation. Regional contests are held yearly in all 50 states. The winners in different categories compete every two years in a city selected for the event. Health experts encourage elders to exercise as much as possible, and doing so in the spirit of competition and camaraderie is perhaps the secret to the success of the Games.

Bob rydberg has won several senior Games gold medals in racquetball. Courtesy

Events are divided into age groups with five-year intervals. Athletes finishing first, second or third in their group receive gold, silver or bronze medals.

The history of these games began in St. Louis, Mo., in 1985, with a group of seven men and women forming the original leadership initially known as the National Senior Olympics Organization (NSOO).

In the fall of that year, they hosted a meeting of representatives who were currently conducting games for seniors in their 33 states. The entire group then planned the first games, which were held in 1987 in St. Louis.

The games attracted 2,500 competitors. The NSOO was formalized during these games. More than 100,000 spectators viewed the ceremonies, which featured Bob Hope at the St. Louis Riverfront Arch. With 3,500 entrants, the inaugural games received exposure from national media, including the New York Times, ESPN and “Good Morning America.”

The next year, San Diego’s own organization was formed, consisting of 194 participants in only nine sports. Their mission statement was “To encourage senior adults, aged 50 or older, to carry on vigorous lives by developing and maintaining high levels of physical and mental fitness through regular participation in sports, fitness and health education activities.”

In 1990, responding to an objection from the U.S. Olympic Committee, the event’s name was changed to the National Senior Games Association. Today, the Senior Olympics title is applied only to those states having a grandfather clause allowing them to use the original name, including California.

The NSGA moved its corporate office to Baton Rouge, La., in 1998 and this year moved again to Kissimmee, Fla., as a non-profit organization dedicated to motivating active adults to lead a healthy lifestyle through its movement.

Bob Webb and Borko Ddragojlovic

Its signature event, the Summer Games, has grown to one of the largest multi-sports events in the world. Thirteen venues have been held in 10 states, with an average of 10,000 participants in recent years.

In addition, Winter Games have been added to provide athletes the opportunity to compete in both summer and winter sports. (Usually the crowd consists of more than twice the number of participants!)

San Diego will be host for the state competition in 2013, when an estimated $10 million in revenue will be brought to the city. Track-and-field Olympian Willie Banks from Oceanside, who set a world record in the triple jump in 1985, will be the official ambassador of the 2013 event.

Additionally, the 2014 qualifier competitions for the national events will be held in San Diego.

Similar to the regular Olympics, athletes who want to be in the Senior Games must first compete in a qualifying round. Currently, athletes can qualify locally or in other cities that allow out-of-state competitors.

“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,” said one recent spectator.

But for many, it’s not all about winning medals. It’s about the camaraderie. Everybody says they seem like they’re still young when they’re playing at these games.

“You feel in your mind that you’re still 18 when you’re out there,” one participant said. “You feel like you’re flying.”

Mike Freshly and Catherine de Groot Hevlin

Meet the Local Athletes

Catherine de Groot-Hedlin, a research scientist in the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, began swimming in high school and continued in college in Canada.

She said she read about the competition before her 50th birthday and started to train for competition three years beforehand. She recently competed in about 10 events, winning gold in back, breast, fly and freestyle meets. She says she swims to stay in shape and enjoys the friendship more than the competition.

Mike Freshly, another La Jollan, has competed in more than 1,000 events in the past few years, and has won enough medals to fill a trophy room — most of them gold.

He has been swimming in events for some 18 years in Australia, Italy, and Germany. Locally, he’s won the Rough Water Swim three years in a row. Also participating in the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, Freshly is one of the foremost swimmers in the country in his age group of 70 and older.

Bob Rydberg of Mission Valley began honing his athletic prowess in the U.S. Army as a Ranger and later in the Special Forces, serving his country for more than 20 years. Another unusual job was an assignment with the Royal Saudi Navy.

He is multi-dexterous, winning in tennis and handball, but his specialty is racquetball. The past two weekends he played racquetball, first in Las Vegas in the Senior Games, winning the gold at singles, then in the Huntsman World Senior Games in Utah again, taking the gold medal.

A Renaissance man in many ways, Rydberg began competing in the Senior Games 20 years ago, but often plays most of these three sports with opponents years younger — and

he still wins! Rydberg has attended five national NSGA

events, invariably taking first place. He said he also plays poker and/or bridge almost daily.

Gordon Shields of Fletcher Hills, or “Gordy,” as he prefers to be called, is a commissioner for cycling.

He began riding a bike “seriously” at age 50 and advanced to competition after retirement as a high school and college teacher.

Daily walking, lifting weights and biking, is his prescription for health, now at age 94. He is looking forward to competing in London next summer in the cycling competition in the 95-and-older division.

Bob Webb of Mission Valley, commissioner of table tennis for the San Diego Senior Games Association, is also CEO of Results Only International, the development, marketing and sales company writing the new business model for the coming 2013 and 2014 games.

Borko Dragojlovic of San Diego, a USA Table Tennis Certified Coach, teaches at the Balboa Park Activity Center daily except Wednesday. Seniors can play free, 1-3 p.m. Saturdays, when Borko organizes the schedule, teaching novices or seasoned players.

Originally called “ping pong,” a game originating in India that mimicked the sound of the ball bouncing on the wood table, that phrase was trademarked by Parker Brothers, who manufactured the paddles and balls as well as the popular and “Monopoly” game.

In 1933, “table tennis” became the official name of the sport. Recently, Dr. Oz featured a program showing the correlation of playing the game to preventing or postponing Alzheimer’s disease.

2013 National Senior Games

When/Where: July 2-Aug. 5 in Cleveland, Ohio

Estimated athletes competing: 11,500

Details: nsga.com

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Posted by Staff on Nov 6, 2012. Filed under La Jolla Life, Life. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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