Diving In: Seniors Excel In The World Of Sports

Diving In: Seniors Excel In The World Of Sports

By: Tammy Leytham
When DeEtte Sauer was 58 years old, she swam her first competitive race. Eighteen years later, in this summer’s National Senior Games held in Birmingham, Ala., she won her first gold medals. Two of them.

Sauer started swimming through the U.S. Masters Swimming program.

“The first time I tried, I couldn’t even get halfway across the pool,” she said. “But this young coach told me she could teach me … if I would just keep my mouth shut and do what she said.” 

Every day, the coach found something to praise about Sauer’s performance. 

“That particular coach didn’t make me feel unsuccessful,” she said, though she admits her first time to compete was nerve-wracking. “I was so very, very scared. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. But I won a medal. That’s what hooked me.”

She now trains six days a week for an hour and a half to two hours a day, and competes in the butterfly and the 400-meter individual medley, a race that includes all four swimming strokes. She races in U.S. Masters Swimming events, which has programs for all ages and all types of swimmers. She has won multiple medals in local and state Senior Games, and has competed at nine National Senior Games.

Senior Games, a biennial competition for men and women 50 and older, is the largest multi-sport competition in the world for senior adults. It began with about 2,500 athletes in 1987, National Senior Games Association CEO Marc T. Riker said. 

“The concept caught on and participation steadily grew until it topped 10,000 athletes competing in 18 sports in the 1987 Games in Tucson,” he said.

Over the past two decades, attendance has stayed strong, ranging from 10,000 to 12,000 athletes.

“We had over 10,500 register for the 2017 Games in Birmingham,” Riker said. “Our partnerships with the City of Birmingham, Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau and Knight Eady proved to be a successful combination in producing a very successful and memorable event for the 30th anniversary of the Games.”

Sauer said you don’t have to be an elite athlete to participate in Senior Games. Those who are interested can simply get involved in whatever is offered near them, in whatever sports they like. During the two weeks of competitions, 800 events are contested within 19 medal sports, ranging from track and field to archery to pickleball, one of the most popular competitions.

“There are swimmers just starting out that are going to Senior Games, just like I was 20 years ago,” she said. 

Sauer said a blind woman who started swimming because her doctor told her to lose weight comes in “dead last every time but gets more applause than anyone.” That’s because the Games celebrates participants for being there, she said.

At a time when many older adults are experiencing a poor quality of life, Sauer said being active offers an alternative. But she understands that lack of energy and enthusiasm.

At 40, Sauer weighed 240 pounds. “I kind of thought life was done. I felt old. I thought ‘There’s not much more.’”

That was before she stepped into the pool at a recreation center near her Houston home.

“I feel much more engaged in life now,” she said. “When I was overweight, I lacked vitality. Swimming has given me so much of that.

“I get to feel young again,” she said. “I want other people, as they are aging, to have as much fun as I’m having.”

And that’s what Senior Games is all about: motivating senior men and women to lead a healthy lifestyle.

There is still time to train and qualify at the local and state levels. The next National Senior Games are in 2019 and will be hosted by Albuquerque, N.M. As Baby Boomers mature, organizers expect to see growth in the Games over the next several years. 

“We are in the early process of researching and learning of potential host cities for 2021 and beyond,” Riker said.

Participants are required to qualify in one of 53-member Games in the year before the National Senior Games are held.

Local programs are run through city recreation centers, YMCAs and other sites such as Jewish community centers. Those who would like more information about programs nearby can visit the National Senior Games Association website: http://nsga.com.

As much as she loves competing and winning medals, Sauer gets more from swimming than just the physical and mental challenge. It’s also a social activity.

“I love my teammates. I love my coaches. They are very knowledgeable and very vested in me. They want to see me be successful,” she said. “Some of the people I swim with are 20 years younger than I am but we are equal in the pool.”

As it happens, taking a leap into the pool helped her step out in other ways, too. She is more active with her three granddaughters, and she volunteers as a mentor to high-risk high school students and as a tutor at a Hispanic community center.

“I don’t want to be invisible. And I’m not,” Sauer said.