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Meeting Challenges and Coming Out a Winner

12 May, 2021

By: Susan Hlavacek
The National Senior Games Association Shares Its Strategy

The motto of the National Senior Games Association is “Long live the challenge.” Of course, over the past year, we’ve certainly lived through some challenges nobody could have anticipated.

When the pandemic first hit, we had been in the planning process for our National Senior Games, which were scheduled for November 2021 in Fort Lauderdale. At the same time, we were expecting to have a full year of qualifiers preceding that, as we always do.

When COVID stopped everything in its tracks, we had three major areas of concern:

1. 2020 State Senior Games Disruption and potential impact on 2021 National Senior Games

2. Athlete Qualifying

3. The Athletes’ Wellbeing

To address the first issue, State Senior Games Disruption, the NSGA staff, along with some board members, state senior games coordinators and invited experts, mulled over the options and the potential financial and safety impact anticipated for each option. The process included focus groups, work committees and special board meetings and involved many hours devoted to finding the right answers in the midst of an ever-changing health landscape. 

A final decision was delayed as long as possible in order to have the most current data on the pandemic’s course. Given all the factors, the best solution presented in December 2020 was to postpone the Games from November 2021 to May 2022. Also, it was decided to keep the 2023 National Senior Games on schedule (more on those later in this article). These moves were determined to have the least disruption to NSGA’s normal cycle of qualifying games in even years and Nationals in odd years.

We’re sometimes asked whether people have complained about the date change and to be honest, they really have not. Overall, everyone understands that the demographic is very vulnerable, and they appreciate the fact that we are looking out for our athletes. Pushing our Games ahead also gives more people time to be vaccinated and more time for COVID to subside.

Athlete Qualifying, of course, was the second area of concern. Many of our 53 member organizations, in whose games athletes qualify for Nationals, were facing postponement. Some were canceling state games that were only weeks away. One of the unique characteristics of the National Senior Games, as opposed to other events for the over-age-50 group, is that NSGA requires athletes to qualify in order to participate.

It also presented NSGA with a thorny and complicated issue to resolve, and because 2020 happened to be a qualifying year, the question was: “How do people qualify if state games are canceled this year?” (And it soon became apparent that the correct term wasn’t if they were canceled but when).

A quick synopsis of our solution was this: Qualify athletes who were fortunate enough to have 2020 games in their state; and to make most who qualified for the 2017 and 2019 National Senior Games automatically eligible to compete at the National level as well. After the decision to postpone, qualifying was expanded to include any State Senior Games that were able to be conducted in 2021.

Additionally, because of uncertainty regarding the duration of the pandemic, and how older athletes would be feeling about making a trip and competing when the time came, it was decided to allow a brief “open registration period” after all other qualified athletes had ample time to register. This will help ensure we have the level of participation we need and will offer others a one-time chance to experience playing in the National Senior Games, especially given the number of sport-active older adults in Florida.

Of course, that still left us with the essential point of Athlete Wellbeing – keeping athletes healthy and engaged – even in quarantine. We don’t track how many of our athletes are gym members but obviously, with those facilities closed, we wanted to help them find other paths to continued health.

We recognized that even highly active older adults would physically degrade faster than younger people, and many of our athletes had never known what it was like to be sedentary. Additionally, we didn’t want them to injure themselves trying to compete either at qualifiers or at the National Senior Games. We decided to begin working on finding ways to keep them active at home.

We began sourcing alternative home exercise and wellbeing articles and demonstration videos and began to share them on NSGA’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages, and we mentioned these ideas in our e-newsletter, The Long Run. We also hosted step challenges and encouraged people to stay active – even if they were inside doing housework or in their yards working on their gardens. 

As a result, we created an “Alternative Home Exercises” web page to collect all of the links so we could promote all of them in e-mail communications with our athletes. We encouraged people to share their activities on social media, using the #StayFitSeniors hashtag, and they responded with great enthusiasm. The #StayFitSeniors Athlete Videos page under Media at NSGA.com now archives some truly entertaining videos. A couple of them are classics, like swimmer DeEtte Sauer doing a video from her shower and singing “I’m swimming in my dreams” to the tune of “Singing in the Rain.” Talk about making lemonade out of lemons!

And as the country starts recovering from COVID, we have found that although some states have cancelled their 2021 games, others are making plans to host theirs, generally this summer and the following fall. We will keep our expanded qualifying regulations and open registration in place, however, so that nobody feels they have to participate in state games if they’re not yet comfortable doing so.

What will our Games look like in Fort Lauderdale? It’s too early to tell. Public health and CDC guidelines are changing all the time and with our Games still a full year away, it’s too far out for our advisory group to be creating protocols or making recommendations. We will continue to monitor the pandemic landscape and will follow the CDC and Broward County Health Department guidelines at that time. We will implement the best safety and mitigation plan for the National Senior Games in May 2022.

There aren’t many bright sides to the pandemic, but it has encouraged more people to discover outdoor exercise. They’ve been walking, they’ve used their bicycles and they’ve even gone running. They’ve played tennis and pickleball outside, as well as other sports. What we’ve been hoping is that it translates into participation in their state games. 

Of course, we also hope they’ll come to Fort Lauderdale to take part in events like the power walk or cornhole or any other sport they enjoy. Just being at the National Senior Games is such a great experience and it might bring out some new people who are just now becoming qualified to participate, having turned 50 during the pandemic.

Right now, we’re determined to keep looking forward. Our Games in Fort Lauderdale in May 2022 could break participation records. In addition to being a great destination and the home of a lot of sports-centric over-50 athletes, it’s a fun place and easy to get to, with plenty of flights. Open registration is just one more attractive feature. We’re very optimistic about these Games.

Something else we’re looking forward to is our 2023 Games, for which we just announced our host city: Pittsburgh. We’re really happy about working with SportsPITTSBURGH and about introducing people to the “city of champions.” That city actually hosted us in 2005 so this will be a return visit.

While the “new normal,” as we’ve come to know it, has brought hardships, it has not stopped the enthusiasm of our athletes. We look forward to having them join us again and take part in what promises to be one of the best Games we’ve ever had as we celebrate not only fitness and sports but resilience and optimism.  SDM

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