Seniors get ready to compete at nationals
By Deborah Griffin
The Daily Reflector
Wednesday, June 12, 2019
Pitt County seniors have got game.
A group of county athletes is ready to prove that point as they head to the 2019 National Senior Games in Albuquerque, N.M., later this week.
The games start Friday and run through June 25.
According to Alice Keene, 68, co-coordinator for the Greenville-Pitt County Senior Games, the National Games are held every two years in different locations across the United States. This year, more than 15,000 athletes are expected to compete from 49 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Canada.
“This is huge,” Keene said. “This is the best of the best. We are so proud of our Greenville-Pitt County participants who will compete.”
Keene said that every year since the first National Games in 1987, the Greenville-Pitt County team has had members qualify in the state finals, allowing them to move on to the National Games.
Locally, 129 participants in the Greenville-Pitt County Senior Games qualified for this year’s national games. Of those, 24 will make the trip to compete in such events as badminton, basketball, archery, table tennis, swimming, regular tennis and several types of track events. These 24 will join with 492 others from across the state to form the N.C. National Games Delegation.
Keene said the Greenville-Pitt County Senior Games is a partnership among Greenville Parks and Recreation, the Mid-East Area Agency on Aging and East Carolina University.
The Senior Games are not just about competing, Keene said.
“This is about health and wellness,” she said. “This is life-enhancing.”
Keene pointed to Senior Games participant Bill Finch, who at 101 was training to compete in the 1,500-meter race 2-1/2 weeks before his death.
“Physical activity is so important to good health and wellness,” she said. “As Americans we don’t get enough physical activity.”
Keene said that research shows that 80-90 percent of seniors are more physically active if they participate in senior games.
“This motivates them,” she said. And, for most of the participants, it is more than just the sports, activities and competition.
“This allows to do sports with other people. They have someone to do physical activity with,” Keene said. “In the Senior Games, we talk about the ‘Senior Games family.’ That is a term that is very near and dear to me.”
The “family” consists of participants, their families, the volunteers and the sponsors, she said.
“These people understand the value of health and wellness and quality of life,” Keene said.
“Participants talk about the ‘f’ words participation gives them,” Keene said. “Fitness, family, fun and fellowship — they are key to who we are. They are core values and complimentary to good health.”
Competition is only one aspect of the Senior Games.
“The physical is important, but for a lot of people, it is the camaraderie and friendships,” Keene said.
“Many have been blessed with friendships that helped them get through cancer, or the loss of a spouse. They help each other through life’s trials — the situations that can make or break you,” Keene said.
“We say this is our ‘chosen’ family,” she said. “They are there for you when you need someone the most. Sometimes our biological family just isn’t able to be there.”
Keene tells those who are are younger and choose to volunteer, “We want you for the rest of your life. We want you to come back each year, then, when you’ve been in it long enough, you get the joy of competing.”
Keene said it is satisfying to be a part of an organization that puts people on the later end of their life span in a national arena.
“We’ve had Greenville teams like little league and dance competitors make it to the national level. That competition is just as important to the seniors as it is for those on the little league teams, she said.
Competition, Keene said, “causes us to work hard, be our best and find great joy in accomplishment.”
The games engage competitors with others in their communities, she said.
“Our seniors feel like it matters what they do and what is going on in their communities and around the state,” Keene said.
Keene helped form the ground rules for the National Senior Games. Her team felt like participants needed to qualify, first at the local level then at the state level.
“In hindsight, we see the wisdom in this,” she said. “But that didn’t come from us. That came from guidance far above us.”
According to Keene, the N.C. Senior Games still serves as a national model for state and local structure.
“This is something all of North Carolina can feel good about,” she said.
There are 53 local games across the state that help qualify participants for nationals.
“The games are accessible to participants in all 100 counties,” she said. The Greenville-Pitt County Senior Games also includes participants from Bertie, Martin, Hertford and Beaufort counties.
The organization has support from several agencies and holds fundraisers to help offset the cost of the national games, although many will choose to fund their own way. Past fundraisers include yard sales, pancake breakfasts and quilt raffles.
Becky Buffaloe grew up playing basketball, and played competitively in high school. She will compete at Nationals in badminton, both in doubles and mixed doubles. She has been involved in the Senior Games for 15 years.
“This is the greatest bunch of people,” she said.
When she joined the organization, “it was like a bright, new day. It is everything. They are like my second family,” Buffaloe said.
Tom Marsh played on the ECU basketball team in the 1970s when the team was 19-9. He joined the senior games, “to stay active and to stay alive,” he said.
Cheryl Curtis, 54, volunteered until she was “old enough” to participate as a competitor. This is her first Nationals as a badminton competitor. She already has competed in the Nationals in basketball and will again this year.
“For me, the Senior Games are the friendships you make,” she said. Curtis has played competitive sports her whole life and still plays softball and basketball.
“Sometimes that competitive brain doesn’t go away,” Curtis said. She started out coaching the Senior Games in her 20s.
“I’ve been a part of it ever since,” Curtis said. The competition at Nationals can be cut-throat, she said, but off the floor everyone is friendly.
“If someone falls during a game, we are all helping each other up,” she said.
Curtis is a retired lieutenant with the Greenville Police Department and still is a reserve officer. She works almost every day and at night tries to find time to practice all the sports she loves.
“Age is only a number to me,” she said.
Jeanette Roth (J.R.) will be heading to Nationals for the first time in a few days. She played slow-pitch softball at ECU in the 1980s.
“My senior year, they went to fast-pitch, so I did not get to play my senior year,” she said. Her team was ranked No. 1 in the country in slow-pitch.
“I have a competitive spirit,” Roth said. “That is why we are here. But it is also for the social aspect. You hear about the isolation that occurs with elderly seniors, especially if they lose a spouse. I’ve heard other seniors say that the Senior Games literally saved them. It is pretty incredible.”
Roth also played intramural badminton at ECU and is excited to be playing competitively again. She volunteered with the senior games until she retired.
“Two weeks after I retired I signed up,” she said with a laugh.
Roth also is involved with SilverArts, the creative side of Senior Games, which includes literary, craft and performing arts competitions. SilverArts allows Roth and her mother, a quilter, to participate in things together, she said.
“It involves artists from all over the state. It is fantastic,” she said. “The Senior Games covers all aspects. The competition feeds that part of me.”
She is looking forward to being at Nationals and taking it all in, she said.
“Seeing that level of talent at our ages is so motivating — and to have a part in that. We are going to do our best and just have fun,” Roth added.