Area athletes go for the gold

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Barbara Ruben

Last month, Don McGee, of Clinton, Md., set an all-time Maryland Senior Olympics record for men 55 to 59 in the 50-yard dash. He is also the 2015 National Senior Games gold medalist in the 100 meters, and one of the fastest runners of his age in the country. Events at the Maryland Senior Olympics continue through Oct. 2. The Northern Virginia Senior Olympics take place Sept. 10 to 21. Washington, D.C.’s Senior Games were held in May.
Photo by Dennis Tuttle

Sometimes slow and steady does win the race. Ask Mandy Whalen, who didn’t see herself as having much athletic potential during her early school years. “I was always the youngest and slowest person in my class,” she recalled.

Fast forward to the age of 70 or so, when Whalen rediscovered sports and started to participate in the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics (NVSO).

This year, Whalen plans to compete in all nine indoor track events, as well as diving and the Frisbee throw. A friend’s personal trainer taught her how to throw the shotput and discus.

“It’s quite gratifying that, at my current age of 76, most of the good runners have shot their knees so, more often than not, I win my age group. It’s my own personal ‘revenge of the nerds’,” Whalen said.

In addition, the former slowpoke now runs 25 to 30 5K and 10K races a year, despite saying, “I’m not terribly competitive.”

Whalen, who lives in Bailey’s Crossroads, said she enjoys the Senior Olympics because, “It’s fun to challenge myself in activities for which I have little innate talent. The people are nice and the events are fun.”

Last year, the NVSO attracted a record number of participants. Over 1,800 people signed up, 37 of whom were 90 or older. This year may set a new record according to Jim MacKenzie, the event’s chair. NVSO events will take place from Sept. 10 to 21. (But registration closes Sept. 5.)

Growing popularity

Competitive sports events are popular in other parts of the metro area as well.

Washington, D.C.’s Senior Games were held in May. The unusually wet and dreary spring weather this year meant a number of events had to be postponed.

Maryland’s Senior Olympics (motto: “To participate is to win!”) runs for nearly half the year. Events have been taking place since May, and will continue through the beginning of October.

This summer’s hot weather tried to wreak havoc with Maryland’s competitions as well, but last month’s track and field events went on as scheduled despite 100 degree temperatures, with the heat index near 110 degrees.

Perhaps one reason this year has been a banner season for area Senior Olympics is that this is a qualifying year for athletes who want to compete at the biannual National Senior Games, which will be held June 2 - 15, 2017 in Birmingham, Ala. Only certified winners in state or national multi-sport competitions can participate in the national competition. 

Each jurisdiction’s Olympics offers dozens of sports and sort-of sports. For those who no longer run track and field events, there’s race walking and even non-competitive mile walks. For those who like to test their prowess in throwing, you can throw a softball, football, shot put or discus, not to mention pitch some horseshoes. Are video games more your speed? Wii bowling is especially popular.

Of course, the more traditional sports attract the most participants, and can be more competitive than you might think.

Peter McGuirk, 73, enjoyed playing basketball recreationally a couple times a week with a group of players who were mostly 40 and older when he heard first learned of NVSO a few years ago.  McGuirk, who lives in Arlington, thought it might be fun to form a three-person team for the Senior Olympics’ 70 to 79 age category and recruited one of his older teammates.

“I thought that all we would have to do is find one more player, show up, be unopposed and collect our gold medal,” he recalled. “Not so fast! I had no idea that there was such a vibrant culture for senior athletes in the local area before the 2013 games.”

This year, McGuirk’s basketball team has already qualified for the National Senior Games because they were the champions in the age 70 to 74 category of the Virginia games.

“Competing is great fun, but the best for me is the feeling I get when I see other athletes getting really excited while participating. I have seen athletes trying new events, such as rowing, and find out that they have potential in that event — and that it is a great form of exercise.”

MacKenzie believes that the NVSO is drawing more athletes every year because it continues to add new sports to its roster of the standard track, swimming and basketball. One addition this year is orienteering, which combines racing with navigating. Also, more cerebral “sports” have been added, including a spelling bee and Sudoku.

Maryland games

Across the Potomac, registration for the Maryland Senior Olympics “are going through the roof,” according to Executive Director Ted Wroth.

“We have athletes of all abilities that are out there. They all try hard. They all want to test themselves against each other as well as qualify to go to the nationals, so it’s really exciting for them,” he said.

The Maryland Senior Olympics’ pickleball competitions, which took place in late August, are among the most popular events, Wroth said. The game — a cross between tennis, badminton and ping-pong — is now in its second year at the Olympics and already has the second largest number of participants.

In all, the Maryland Senior Olympics is expecting nearly 1,500 athletes to compete this year. Events take place in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Howard counties.

“There are plenty of us out there,” said Neal P. Gillen, of Potomac, Md., who is on the board of the Senior Olympics.

Gillen plays basketball, a sport he’s enjoyed since high school. One year, his team won the Maryland Senior Olympics and made it all the way to the semi-finals in the National Games “until we were defeated by a team of three guys who had played in the NBA. They were all 6-foot-8 or 9.”

In additional to basketball, Gillen has competed in swimming for the last seven years, and is active in several masters swimming programs, including one called the Ancient Mariners.

“What do I get out of it? Life. I have more energy than my contemporaries,” said 79-year-old Gillen. “My father was a professional boxer, and he always instilled in me to keep in shape. I’ve always been active.”

It’s not too late to register for the final Maryland Senior Olympics events. Registration is required at least one week prior to the event you want to compete in.

Golf, softball, badminton, swimming and archery all take place in September. The games end with croquet on Oct. 1 and 2. For more information, see www.mdseniorolympics.org or call (240) 777-4930.

NVSO online registration closes Sept. 5. No further registrations by mail are being accepted. To register, see www.nvso.us or call (703) 830-5604.

Information about the D.C. Senior Games can be found at http://dpr.dc.gov/ service/33rd-annual-dc-senior-games or by calling (202) 671-0314.