by Thad Mumau | Photography by Diana Matthews
One of the rites of spring in this state is the annual Senior Games. Beginning in 1983, thousands of athletes 50 years of age and older have gathered for local events all over North Carolina, competing in individual and team sports as well as creative endeavors.
Most of the Senior Games are in April, with some of the competition carrying over into May. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded for various age groups in each event. Qualifiers may compete in the state finals in Raleigh in the fall. Every two years, winners at the state level earn the chance to represent North Carolina in the national senior games.
More than 3,000 athletes participated in this state last year. For many reasons. Some-once an athlete, always an athlete-seek the thrill of victory. Or, at least, the thrill of competing. Others find the competition an exciting way to get more exercise, and thus, be more healthy. For just about all, though, there is the camaraderie and the meeting and making of new friends.
Tracy Davis has been the coordinator of the Mid-Carolina Senior Games, which cover Cumberland, Harnett and Sampson counties, since 2001. She has seen the program grow in popularity and participation, while adding a wide variety of events.
“The Senior Games is an awesome health promotion program,” she says. “I really enjoy talking with and getting to know our participants, many of whom have tremendous obstacles in their lives … like heart disease, strokes, diabetes, arthritis and other chronic conditions. These people manage and overcome these conditions and still train hard to compete in the games.
“One of my favorite things is giving out the medals and seeing the faces of the participants as their names are called. Seeing how happy they are with their accomplishments is one of the best feelings I have as a coordinator.”
Davis thinks the games are kind of a testimonial of senior citizens’ spirit.
“I believe the Senior Games stand for pride,” she says, “no matter the age. These people prove they are still capable of doing things they enjoy. These games offer seniors the opportunity to show off their skills and talents.”
Mary Crusius is a wonderful example. The 87-year-old “kid” bubbles over with enthusiasm and energy, and if she isn’t competing in one sport or another in and around Southern Pines, she is spreading the good news of the Senior Games.
“I tell people, ‘You need to be doing something. Don’t waste your time just sitting around. Life is so full of adventure. Staying active keeps you healthy, and there’s no better way than getting involved in the Senior Games. There is something for everyone,’” she says.
Crusius had a knee replacement five months ago but bounced back quickly.
“I made up my mind to work as hard as I could,” she says. “The Senior Games were coming up, and I had to get ready.”
These days, she competes in pickleball, table tennis and tennis. It wasn’t all that long ago that she was also entering the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes, the discus throw and the standing and running broad jumps.
“I did as many events as I could,” Crusius says. “I’ve been doing Senior Games close to 20 years, and it has been the most fun. It’s competitive, but it’s friendly competition. Everybody has the same ultimate goal, which is to stay active and keep going.”
Crusius was instrumental in introducing pickleball to a large number of seniors in Moore County. She won a silver medal for singles in the sport at the National Senior Games last year in Minnesota as well as a bronze for singles in table tennis.
Both retired school teachers are 61. They have been doing Senior Games for four years, and have gone from entering just about everything on the sign-up sheet to concentrating on pickleball.
“I think it was 23 events my first year,” Jonn says, “but we were driving all over the place to get to the different events, and that got to be kind of a hassle. Becky and I love pickleball, so now we compete as a mixed-doubles team as well as in doubles and singles.”
“We’re pretty tough competitors,” Becky says. “We like to win. But we also like the fact that we’ve met a lot of nice people in Senior Games. Last year, I did maybe 19 different events. Now, it’s just pickleball.
“The thing about the sport is that when you pick up a paddle for the first time, you can have immediate success,” she adds. “It doesn’t require special skill, and you don’t have to cover a lot of ground. It is a great sport for seniors.”
Joan Harmon, 62, is a relative newcomer to Senior Games, as this is her second year. After retiring as a school counselor in 2009, she worked part-time for four years and then took on projects around her house.
“A year ago in January, I felt I needed to get some exercise, to move some,” she says, “so I signed up to swim at Campbell University. It’s the only indoor pool in Harnett County. Then, I thought I needed a goal, something to push me, and I went on the Internet.
“Something about Senior Games popped up, and I wondered if they had swimming. When I saw that they did, it was exciting. I said, ‘I can do that.’ My husband, Bennie, got involved, and we both did the softball and football throws.
“In the Mid-Carolina Games, I entered five swimming events and won five gold medals. When I went to the State Games in Raleigh, my goggles fogged up, and I panicked. I couldn’t see, but I was determined to finish. A woman in my age group was nice enough to let me use her anti-fog spray. That’s the way most people in the Senior Games are. Competitive, but nice.
“I’m competitive too,” Harmon says. “If I’m going to do something, I’m going to give it the best I have. These Senior Games have got me going. I’m on fire right now.”
A sentiment hundreds of senior athletes in North Carolina are sharing this time of year.