Based in Richmond, Va, Catherine is a freelance writer specializing in stories about the arts, parenting, health and wellness, aging, and fascinating people.

Going for the gold at the Senior Games

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Hundreds of older adults braved buckets of rain last month to give their all to competing in the Virginia Senior Games. At multiple locations, more than 1,300 men and women participated in 68 events spread over 18 different sports, including pickleball, swimming, cycling, racquetball, and track and field.

This is the 40th year the Virginia Recreation and Park Society has presented the Virginia Senior Games, giving seasoned athletes as well as novices the opportunity to compete.

No matter your skill level or ability, anyone 50 or older is welcome to participate. You don’t even need to be a Virginian, as competitors may come from other states as well.

For each event, athletes are broken up into age brackets according to their birth year. This year’s contestants ranged from 50 to 98.

The Henrico Recreation Department hosted last year’s and this year’s Games. Each town hosts for four years, so there will be two more opportunities to compete in Henrico before the Games move on to another city in 2021.

And as for all that rain, most of the events were held on schedule, from May 11 to 19. But discus, javelin and pole vault competitions were postponed to June 9.

Fifty Plus interviewed seven Richmond-area athletes who participated, and learned that the Virginia Senior Games provide a friendly but competitive environment for older athletes to have fun and go for the gold. Here are their stories:

Athletes: Emile “Nip” Gaidos, 80, and Stephanie Jewell, 85

Events: Pickleball mixed doubles (Gaidos also played singles and men’s doubles with his brother Bill)

Medal: Gold

Gaidos and Jewell met on the pickleball court several years ago and decided they were a great match, given their backgrounds and level of play.

Pickleball is a paddleboard sport (sort of a cross between badminton and tennis, played with a plastic ball) that has burgeoned in popularity over the last decade. The competition drew nearly 300 participants at the Virginia Games, the largest crowd of any sport there.

Gaidos started playing pickleball about six or seven years ago. He played sandlot tennis as a youth and racquetball for many years.

Jewell was a lifelong singles and doubles tennis player in Bon Air and Kailmarnick. After having played tennis for 50 years, she finally retired because it became too tough on her joints.

“Moving to pickleball seemed like a wonderful change,” Jewell said, “and the sport became active around the time I had to stop playing tennis.”

This year was the third time Gaidos and Jewell played mixed doubles together in the Virginia Senior Games. Jewell enjoys playing with Gaidos because of his finesse.

“Even though he had a knee replacement last December, he’s still fast. And he’s a smart player. He knows his opponents’ weaknesses and strengths, and plays accordingly,” she said.

Gaidos praises Jewell for her excellent strokes, a clear sign of her experience playing tennis.

Both Gaidos and Jewell are competitive by nature, as evidenced by their gold medal, but they appreciate the camaraderie they enjoy with the other players. “We chitchat about children, grandchildren, animals, and where to eat lunch,” Gaidos said.

“I wouldn’t say I was great at pickleball,” Gaidos said, “but I always enjoyed it.” The fact that he practices at least four days a week and won three gold medals at the games — with Jewell in mixed doubles, and in singles and in men’s doubles — suggest he must be pretty great at it, but both Gaidos and Jewell are modest about their wins.

“When you get older, the number of participants gets slimmer,” Jewell said, “so sometimes you get a medal just because nobody else is in your age group.”

Athlete: Kim Sydnor, 80

Events: Shot put, discus, javelin (both discus and javelin were rescheduled to June because of rain)

While attending high school and college in Lynchburg, Sydnor enjoyed competing on his track and field teams. He even held records for discus and shot put, although he plays those honors down, saying he was a “big fish in a small pond.”

Four years ago, when Sydnor first learned about the Virginia Senior Games, he was excited to participate in the events he had enjoyed as a youth. He signed up for the hammer throw, discus, shot put and javelin.

He had never thrown the javelin before, but he said he believes in the benefit of learning new things, so he taught himself how to do it.

Although Sydnor had not participated in field event competitions for many decades, he had remained physically active, making time to play basketball or tennis, and to go jogging, walking or hiking in the woods. “I like to do anything that seems competitive and interesting,” he said.

He now exercises three days a week starting at 6 a.m., using the exercise machines and stretch classes available at Covenant Woods, a continuing care retirement community in Hanover County, where he lives. “Anticipating the Games helps me keep to my exercise routine,” he said.

Sydnor has won medals in the past, but said he doesn’t keep track. “It’s nice. I like winning medals, but that’s not why I’m out there,” he said. For Sydnor, the Games provide a chance to stay mentally and physically fit — and an opportunity to show his grandkids what he can do.

Athlete: Joe Roussos, 63

Events: Horseshoes, softball hit and throw, free throw competition, 3-on 3-basketball

Medals: Gold, gold, gold, silver

For Roussos, the Virginia Senior Games are a family affair. He first got involved two years ago, with several of his six siblings, when the Games were held in the Tidewater area. Over the past few years, he has played pickleball, basketball and mini-golf, receiving medals in every event.

This year, mini-golf was not offered, and he dropped pickleball because he hadn’t had enough time to practice. Instead, he picked up horseshoes and softball hit and throw.

A regular basketball player, Roussos was excited to play three-on-three basketball with his brothers Louis and Constantine. He was also excited to watch his sister Christine compete in the Games. “She is the ultimate competitor,” he said.

Although Roussos had played softball and basketball when he was younger, he took a long hiatus from competitive sports after breaking an ankle in his 20s. Now he sees that injury and the resulting break in his sports career in a positive light.

“I’m glad I didn’t play competitive sports over the last 30 years,” Roussos said. “Most of my friends who did play have knee problems or other injuries, and I’m in pretty good shape in terms of my joints,” he said.

Roussos took up basketball four years ago because he wanted to get in shape. “I play with mostly younger guys,” Roussos said, “so I have to work hard to keep up.” That push to keep up clearly benefits Roussos when he competes in his age bracket in the Games.

Athlete: Leslie Moore, 63

Events: Pickleball, women’s doubles

Although Leslie Moore has always run for exercise, until a few years ago she had never played a sport. As the seventh of eight children, she didn’t have the chance to compete as a youth. “My role in the family was to come home and help my mom cook and clean,” she said.

After seeing pickleball advertised in the local paper, Moore decided to give it a try. “I got involved before it was super popular, so there were enough beginner players that it wasn’t difficult to play and develop some skill,” she said.

After learning about the Virginia Senior Games, Moore decided to compete this year for the fun of it. She and her partner beat their first competitors from Virginia Beach but were beaten by the more advanced players they battled against in the second set. Then they lost in a single elimination game.

For Moore, the Virginia Senior Games provides an opportunity to develop more comfort with tournament play and to have fun. “Everybody at the Games is very friendly, and they all root for one another,” Moore said. “It’s always fun!”

Athletes: The Astrops: Rob, 66, and Cecil, 64

Events: 5k, 10k, 1500m

Medals: gold (5k) (Cecil), bronze (10k), silver (1500m) (Rob)

Rob and Cecil Astrop believe the couple that runs together, stays together. Between the two of them, they have run over 100 marathons.

Cecil won the Richmond Marathon back in 1989 and 1991, and was runner-up in 1992. Now, after 34 years of marriage, they still run about 40 to 50 miles a week, and they recently completed the Illinois Marathon.

For the Astrops, the Virginia Senior Games mark one of many opportunities to compete. Each year, Cecil typically runs a couple of marathons a year and a handful of half marathons or 10-milers, while Rob also runs 5k and 10k races. Rob sometimes runs up to 20 races a year, and he frequently finishes in the top two.

One of the Astrops’ reasons for participating in the Virginia Senior Games is to qualify for the National Senior Games held every other year. Generally, the top four participants in each state event — as well as those who meet certain time requirements — are eligible to compete at the national level the following year. Last month, both Rob and Cecil qualified to compete in the National Senior Games to be held in Albuquerque, N.M. in 2019.

After having qualified for the nationals in 2016, the Astrops attended the 2017 National Senior Games in Birmingham, Ala. with over 10,000 fellow competitors ranging in age from 50 to over 100. Cecil placed fourth out of twenty in her age group, and Rob placed tenth out of thirty. They said they were inspired to see 90-something runners still participating in events on the national level.

Ultimately, both Rob and Cecil find joy in being able to keep running. “In the middle of a run, I thank God for letting me suffer this much,” Rob said. “It’s a mental game, but we’re always trying to slow down as slowly as possible.”

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