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Springfield Senior Olympics

Joan-Marie Moss

Outstanding athletes gathered together in Atlanta Georgia to participate in the World Olympics. While our attention was drawn to those spectacular athletic displays, some of our most remarkable athletes were preparing to participate in competitions in Springfield.

Sixteen seniors from DuPage County participated in this year's Springfield Senior Olympics the end of September. Most came home with gold, silver and bronze medals and some will go on to the National Senior Olympics, which will be held in Tucson next May.

Typically there is no requirement or qualifying criteria for participation in the Springfield Senior Olympics other than age and a nominal entrance fee. "You do not have to participate in other competitions before entering the Springfield events," said Annette Fuchs, coordinator of the Illinois Senior Olympics. "but this year's winners do qualify for the National Senior Olympics, which is held every other year."

"Nearly 1,300 athletes participated in the Springfield games this year and approximately 700 of those will be eligible to go on to compete in the Nationals," said Fuchs.

This is the 20th year that Springfield has held the Senior Olympics. Traditionally, anyone 55 years of age or older can participate in this event. This year for the first time the Olympics were opened to the first wave of Baby Boomers. Fuchs said, "When we dropped the age to allow anyone over 50 to participate we expected to get an additional 50 to 70 entrants, but 243 men and women between the ages of 50 and 54 came out."

Both teams and individuals can participate. Some go to the Olympics alone and meet others with common interests there. Others participate as part of a team. And yet others bring family and friends.

While the Olympic events are set up as competitive events, many of the participants join in just for the fun of it. Social events, including a dinner dance, are scheduled along with the sporting events.

Lombard resident Bill Deoll particularly enjoys the competitive aspects of the game. A member of the "spike" volleyball team, which edged out the "Chicagoland Masters" team taking the gold medal and qualifying for the National Olympics, he takes the game seriously.

Deoll said, "Our team meets regularly throughout the year. We enter every competitive event we can. I enjoy the competition and have been in competitions for 35 years."

"But, you certainly don't have to go out to win," he said. "Participation's the word...The important thing is the participation. The best thing about the Senior Olympics is that you can do this at whatever level you want. Some have been in competitive sports all their lives and others may enter not realizing that they've gotten in over their heads and come in last. Whether you win a medal or not doesn't make any difference. The directors want participation. They want to get people out and doing things."

His recommendation to anyone who is interested in doing something physical, "Don't be afraid to participate. Lots of seniors get involved just to have a good time, and there are more and more all the time. If you want to get involved and you're able, just do it."

The oldest competitor in this year's competition was 92-year-old Anna Ward of St. Charles, MO, who participated in the 200, 400, 800, and 1500 meter runs and in the standing long jump.

Sam Dorman of Springfield, 90, is the second oldest. He participates in cycling, racquetball, hard ball, track & field, and basketball free throw.

Stacy VanPetten, 84-year old resident of OakBrook, the oldest participant from DuPage County competes in the backstroke events. He was inspired to get involved by his son, sixty-year-old James VanPetten and his wife, fifty-three-year-old Ruth. "Dad didn't start swimming until he was eighty-years old. This year he won two silver medals and a bronze. His goal is to win the championship next year," said his son, 60-year-old James VanPetten of Elmhurst.

James has qualified to participate in the National Senior Olympics several times. He said, "The Springfield Senior Olympics is a family event for us. Everyone gets involved. This year, my wife participated in six events and brought back four gold medals and two silver. We have had four generations of our family at the Olympics in the past three years. Daughter Karen and her husband John Gilpin, formerly of Elmhurst, have brought their children to Springfield to lend their moral support. We took my grandson with us to the National Senior Events in Baton Rouge a couple years ago. And now we're working on getting Dad's new wife, Marie, involved."

Ted Koch, 77-year-old resident of Elmhurst, has been competing in the Olympics for 13 years. He said, "I hardly ever to the Olympics without getting medals. I've gone to the Nationals four times." This year he entered four swimming freestyle events and brought home two gold and two silver medals.

As a teenager Koch was interested in swimming. He didn't get involved competitively until he was in Junior College, where he helped to organize competitive swim meets. Even then, when he went to college he couldn't make the team. "I began getting serious about swimming again when I started having trouble with my back. My wife suggested I might try swimming and I gave it a try. That was before they began to realize that athletic activities have so much impact on how we feel. Today my endocrinologist says he wishes his diabetes patients would do as I do. When I had surgery a while back and couldn't swim for a month, I could sure tell the difference in the way I felt."

Koch said he prefers to go off by himself and take a nap before a meet, while his wife, who come along, spends the time getting around and visiting with people. "The people there are very much in tune with the needs of the people who attend the Olympics," he said, "Last time the fire department was right there, checking to see if everything was ok when they saw me laying on a bench. I told them, I was fine, just wanted to take a nap before the event."

Henry VanLeuven, 60-year-old bicyclist from Lombard has been racing in Senior Olympics like the ones in DeKalb, Park Ridge and Springfield for years. He said that he maintains a regular routine of biking to stay in shape, "I prefer to bike around 5 am because there's very little traffic at that time of the morning. Even then, it's important to wear a helmet."

Lombard's Len Ruzycki, a member of the "Chicagoland Masters" volleyball team, said his team narrowly missed the gold medal and qualification for participation in the National Olympics. But he's not the least discouraged. He said, "Participation in competitive events gives me the incentive to work out and to be involved physically. I have been in the national competitions three times. It's a real experience. More than 10,000 seniors turn out for the events. The National Springfield Senior

Seniors Olympics is very much like the Olympics that were held in Atlanta. The torch is lit, everyone's in uniform and there are all sorts of celebrations."

Ruzycki began playing volleyball in the 60s when he was in Poland. Some time ago he saw an Springfield Senior Olympics ad in the paper announcing the Park Ridge Olympics, got a team together and started playing. "Pretty soon the "Chicagoland Masters" asked me to join their team. We play a tournament a month often against younger teams."

Ruzycki teaches PE at Morton East High School, "I get out there and play with my students. It gives them a different perspective when they can see that just because you're older doesn't mean you can't do anything."

Although he travels with a basketball team and plays three times a week with them, Stan Hodock, 68-year old athlete from Villa Park, doesn't necessarily specialize when he participates in the Springfield Senior Olympics. "I was fairly active when I was younger and then drifted into golf and bowling. About thirteen years ago I saw an announcement about the Senior Olympics. I saw all the activities and decided I could enter several of them. Gradually I started doing a little more work. I don't always have time to train for each specific event. Some of them, like horseshoes, I do just because I enjoy it," he said.

This year Hodock, was unable to participate in the activities he signed up for due to an injury he sustained just a week before the Olympics. But he certainly plans to be back in the games next year. "The Springfield Senior Olympics is one of the best organized and best run of the Olympics," he said.

Hodock likes to stay active. "It helps to keep the weight down. As soon as I start laying off a while, I see my weight go up. Soon as I'm back at it, the weight goes down. Activity helps with other health issues like blood pressure, too."

Bev Charney, recreation coordinator of the West Chicago Senior Olympics said that senior athletes use the local Olympics to tune up for the Springfield Senior Olympics as well as to get out and have fun. She started working with Senior Olympics in Park Ridge and went to West Chicago in 1993 when the western group was formed. She said roughly 500 seniors participate in the West Chicago event and perhaps nine to twelve go on to compete in Springfield.

"Seniors are a lot more active now than they ever have been before," she said. "They're more aware of health, they understand the importance of exercise. And they just aren't ready to sit in a rocking chair and watch TV. The Olympics gives them a chance to get involved and have a lot of fun. Anyone can participate."

The types of sports activities that seniors are interested in are changing somewhat. More active sports are being added and less strenuous ones are becoming less popular. Not all Olympics events offer every sport. But it's relatively easy to find competitions for every physical activity imaginable. Hodock said, "For many of the events you don't need to be a super athlete to compete."

Fuchs said, "It's quite common for people to sign up for a five or six different events when they first start out, and then to begin to specialize in one or two events as they become more proficient. We have a wide span of skill levels. Many who participate have been competing all their lives. Many are at master-level and are highly proficient. But they compete with many others who are just in the event for the fun of it. We are very careful to make sure that the competition is fair for all. Each event is broken down by age groups in five-year increments. And the rules are designed in such a way that everyone has a fair shot at winning. For example, some of our master people object to the way the Springfield Senior Olympics conducts the long jump event. They want to have six tries, which is standard for that level of competition. But we tell them 'We don't want our entrants to be masters necessarily. There are two different types of contestants and it's more fair if we limit the number of tries to three.'"

Everyone agrees, that all who get actively involved in the Senior Olympics come away a winner. Not only do they win as a result of completing an event. Even more, they have a great deal of fun, they feel much healthier and more alive as a result of the physical activities and in the process they make lots of friends. The medals are a nice addition.

Koch said, "I've hardly ever gone to the Olympic meets without getting medals...never less than two. Sometimes, there are only two or three entrants in an event and so everyone gets a medal. Sometimes, you might even win by default, if you're the only entrant." Over the years he's accumulated quite a few medals. This year he said he gave one to each of his children and grandchildren as a keepsake.

The Springfield Senior Olympics is just one of many such events held across the country, many of them right here in Illinois, throughout the year. Not all Senior Olympics are qualifying meets although this year's Springfield event is.

Community-sponsored Olympic competitions are held for seniors throughout the summer. Among the Senior Olympics scheduled locally are West Chicago in June, Park Ridge in July, Orland Park in August. Others are held at Northwestern University, Rock Island, Rockford, Chicago, Champaign Urbana, Mount Vernon, Edwardsville and Quincy. It's not uncommon for dedicated athletes to even travel out of state to participate in other events.

"There is no feeder system in place," according to Fuchs, "There is no requirement that says you have to win anywhere else, in order to participate here."

"The Springfield Olympics are sponsored by the City of Springfield. Tax dollars, corporate sponsors, volunteers and in-kind donations back the events," said Fuchs.

"The Springfield Senior Olympics is an example of what can happen when people work together," said Fuchs. "While the staff that coordinates the program consists of only two individuals, we rely on the help of 250 to 300 volunteers each year to manage the many events and to serve as monitors and timers. Springfield's Recreation Department, Park District, Convention & Visitors Bureau, the YMCA and the Senior Center of Sangamon County all contribute to the success of this event. This year ten corporate entities are lending their support, including Alddus Health Care, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Community Care Systems, Inc., the State Journal-Register, National Safety Consulting Service, Inc., O.S.I. Industries, Springfield Firefighters Local #37, Springfield School District #186, State Farm Insurance and The Medicine Shoppe."

"Our corporate sponsors are dedicated to promoting seniors and senior athletics. Many of them sponsor the National Senior Olympics as well as the Springfield Senior Olympics. Companies also come out to the events looking for participants to include in their advertising and promotions," according to Fuchs. "Total cereal, for example, features senior contestants on their cereal boxes. They look for people who might be good spokespersons, who project a quality image in all sorts of sports areas. The Nuvene Investment Company also uses seniors in their ads."

Senior Olympics are typically run by local Park Districts. Some, like the Springfield Senior Olympics are qualifiers for the National Seniors Olympics. Others are not. The Olympics is a grassroots effort to get seniors involved in athletics. "Our greatest publicity is word of mouth," said Fuchs.

Anyone who is interested in participating in Senior Olympics events can do so simply by contacting their local park district.


A Note:

This is one of a number of features Joan-Marie wrote that were highlighted in Press Publications newspapers some time ago. We were not -- and are not -- connected with any one discussed in this article. Rather, it is included here to demonstrate the capabilities of the author and the impact that an article can have on the ongoing success of a venture -- not to endorse the organization, events or people mentioned here. For information on this and other articles written by Joan-Marie contact her at j-m@creativeoptions.com

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