That’s how Myrna Moline remembers her experience marching in the Parade of Athletes two years ago at the National Senior Games in Minnesota.
“It was overwhelming,” the 69-year-old South Titusville resident said. “To feel that welcoming camaraderie among athletes from around the country, to be gathered together and have the recognition of your peers … it was just a welcoming, heart-warming experience.”
And the feeling is all the more special this year in Birmingham, which will host the 2017 National Senior Games—the largest multisport event in the world for people age 50 and older. The Games begin Friday, June 2, with the Flame Arrival Ceremony, and run through Thursday, June 15.
Moline, who will compete in swimming, is among more than 10,000 athletes set to compete in 800-plus events in 19 medal sports. There are 279 athletes from Alabama. The state with the most athletes: Tennessee, with 1,033.
The Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex is the hub of events and the site of sports like basketball and badminton. Other events—archery, cycling, golf, softball, swimming, track and field, triathlon, volleyball, and others—will be at venues across the metro area, including the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium Complex; the Samford University Track and Soccer Complex; the Liberty Park Sports Complex; and the Birmingham CrossPlex.
Since the National Senior Games began in 1987 in St. Louis, Mo., eight athletes from across the United States have competed in every Games—including George Freeman, an 86-year-old from Foley, Ala.
“I’ve been lucky, really,” said Freeman, who has run 24 marathons, including six Boston Marathons.
Freeman said he likes that the competitions are divided into five-year age groups.
“I don’t mind competing with people, but I hate to have somebody 10 years younger than me win a race,” he said.
A slight problem with his left knee is keeping Freeman from running the 400-, 800- or 1,500-meter races this year as he normally might. He will bowl instead.
“For an 86-year-old, I guess I’m pretty good,” said the lefty, who averages between 160 and 170. “I’ve got high hopes in Birmingham.”
The National Senior Games are more competitive than most believe, athletes say.
“There are a lot of folks out there who are good,” said Steven “Big Mike” Thomason, a 67-year-old from Ardmore, Ala., who has been a dominant figure in discus, hammer throw, and shot put. “You go to these national events, and you find out that you’re not as good as you thought you were, but you’re trying to better yourself. You may not win the meet, but it’s a personal trial.”
Organizers are highlighting 15 senior athletes as Humana Game Changers. Among them: 74-year-old Glennon Bazzle, who has been to a pair of previous National Senior Games. Humana, presenting sponsor of the Games, promotes lifelong wellness and profiles those who exhibit healthy living. And the National Senior Games Association (NSGA) staff recommends those who are recognized as Game Changers.
Bazzle “eats, sleeps, and lives golf,” said NSGA Communications and Media Director Del Moon.
Bazzle, who is married to Moline, a certified golf instructor, author, publisher, TV producer, and host, said, “This will be the third [National Games] for us. We went to Houston in 2011. That was the first. The second was 2013 in Cleveland. It’s really a unique opportunity.”
While Bazzle has played golf since 1974, his wife didn’t take up swimming until the Hurricane Katrina transplants moved to Birmingham and she began taking lessons in Fairfield. Ironically, her Fairfield swimming instructor is now the director of Bessemer Recreation Center, where she trains.
“I was impressed at not only the number of people who compete at my age but also the level at which they compete,” said Moline. “So many people compete into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s. I tell them sometimes I don’t feel like I’m a competitor in these National Games, because a lot of them in my age group will lap me.
“I look up to them and say, ‘I want to be just like you when I grow up.’”
The Games attract diverse athletes from across the Birmingham metro area.
Kenneth Robinson, 65, of West End, is competing in tennis with playing partner Rick Tyus, 70.
Robinson said, “I’m glad to know that I am a part of a senior organization that promotes health and wellness and fitness for senior citizens and hopefully we can be an example for young people coming behind us.”
He has participated in the sport for more than 30 years, and began practicing at Ensley Park (now the James Lewis Tennis Center) until he became proficient enough to become a certified tennis instructor.
Robinson, pastor of Union Bethel Christian Church, a non-denomination congregation in Mason City, played in his first senior games in 2015 in Minneapolis.
“It’s exciting in the sense that you are part of a national organization and a national event where you have that spirit of competition,” he said. “Anytime you are an athlete you have an excitement of competing . . . challenging yourself to compete is always exciting for me. And then to have an opportunity to play on this level against different people. Some people have been playing in the senior games for years.”
Mike Madden, 70, of unincorporated Jefferson County between Irondale and Mountain Brook, is one of those veterans. He will compete in the basketball, triple jump, discus, and perhaps high jump. He learned of National Senior Games 10 years ago, when a friend attending their 45th high school class reunion gushed about getting in shape and winning the 100 meters at the Michigan Senior Olympics.
A bout with rheumatoid arthritis slowed Madden’s progress: “I did it in 2008 just because I signed up and was going to finish what I started, even though I didn’t think I was ready. I thought I was done, then I got in better shape—and my distances got better and better.”
Madden trains with Gary Murton, a 55-year-old high jumper and sprinter from Hoover. Murton, who finished fifth in his events in the 2013 National Senior Games, said his 10-year-old daughter and his job take up most of his time, so training is a premium. He takes to the track, first at Hoover High School and now at Mountain Brook High, each weekend with the attitude that “something is better than nothing.”
Another pair of Hoover residents, Homer Brown and Duke Stogner, compete in table tennis. Brown owns BumperNets, a store in the Riverchase Galleria that sells arcade games, pool tables, and table tennis equipment. Stogner is an employee at BumperNets.
“Duke and I have won a lot of singles and doubles gold medals in the Senior [Games],” Brown said. “You compete against people in your own group, in that five-year group. That’s pretty cool. You get to travel, and you meet people as you move along and move up.
“I won the gold medal, singles and doubles, when I first got in it when I came to Birmingham,” the store owner continued. “I won the 50 to 54 [age division], and Duke did the same thing. He was in the age group above me, 55 to 59 at that time.”
Because they are in different age divisions, Brown and Stogner won’t play in the same division until they are in the 90-and-older group.
“We look forward to that day,” Stogner said.
Brown expects their fans to attend when he and Stogner compete at the BJCC.
“I’ve got a lot of customers and friends who want to come down and see me through to get an Alabama medal,” he said. “It would be pretty cool to get it on the home turf.”
Add family and friends coming to cheer other athletes, and the metro area can expect about 25,000 visitors to the area—all of whom who will be spending money, organizers say. Estimates by the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau (GBCVB) set the projected economic impact at more than $30 million.
“We’ll look hopefully at $35 million in economic impact,” said David Galbaugh, director of sports sales and marketing at GBCVB. “It’s huge for us.”