At 94 years young, Jack Eckenrode is an avid cyclist. He has biked his entire life, eventually converting his recreational cycling into an all-out competition. In 2005, the National Senior Games, a 21-sport biennial competition hosted by the National Senior Games Association for both men and women aged 50 and older, came to his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa. Eckenrode competed in the Games’ cycling events that year, and like many athletes after participating for the first time, he never stopped. For the last 17 years, he’s continued to compete in the Games, winning his very first gold at last year’s event.
The National Senior Games Association was established in St. Louis, Mo., in 1985. A nonprofit organization, it began with one mission: to motivate adults to be active and lead healthy lifestyles. Studies have long demonstrated the many health benefits regular exercise provides and staying active as a senior adult promotes not only physical longevity but mental activity as well. “The National Senior Games are a great opportunity for athletes aged 50-plus to stay engaged and enjoy the sports that they love to do,” says Susan Hlavacek, interim president and CEO of the National Senior Games Association. “Years ago, 50 was considered old, but it’s really not. Fifty is the new 40. Athletes are excited to have the opportunity to participate.”
Participation starts out at the state level, as the association has more than 50 member organizations. State qualifiers are held in “even” years, while the national games are held in “odd” years. Participants can qualify in a variety of sports, from individual events like archery, golf, swimming, tennis, and track and field to team sports like volleyball, basketball, softball, and the newest team sport, soccer. The games also include non-ambulatory events in bowling, cornhole, and shuffleboard to ensure inclusivity for all who want to participate. “Cornhole was added to the list last year, and it went really well,” Hlavacek says. “We partnered with the American Cornhole Organization, and they did a great job managing the three events: co-ed, singles, and doubles competitions.”
A growing event
Over the years, participation has only continued to increase, notes Hlavacek. Approximately 100,000 athletes participate in the various state games during the qualifying years for the National Senior Games. “I think the athlete numbers are going up because more seniors are becoming active and they want to stay and be healthy,” Hlavacek adds. “There is a bigger push today to be healthy, eat well, and exercise to live longer. I think this plays a big part in the encouragement to participate.”
The last National Senior Games took place in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in 2022—the event, like so many others, was delayed a year due to COVID. It attracted just over 12,000 participants, the second-highest number of athletes to participate in the games. “Despite coming out of the pandemic, athletes were excited to compete and interact with their fellow competitors and friends,” Hlavacek says. “After being isolated for two years, athletes wanted to get out and be active, and this was their opportunity to compete again.”
Increasing gender parity
Not only did registration continue to increase, but the higher numbers began revealing another trend: more women were participating. Historically, Hlavacek explains, there was a much higher percentage of men participating compared to women. Over the last few games, however, the gender gap began to close. In Ft. Lauderdale, there were 6,157 men and 5,908 women registered to compete. Just five years prior, the gap was much wider, with 5,813 men versus 4,717 women.
There’s no specific reason to pinpoint why more women are beginning to take part in the Games, but organizers do have a theory: Title IX. The landmark law was part of the Education Amendments of 1972, and Title IX specifically banned discrimination based on sex in federally funded programs, throwing open the doors for girls and women in a variety of areas, including sports. Now athletes who were born in the era of this law are becoming seniors. “Many of our current female athletes had never participated in sports before joining the games—they never had the opportunities in high school or college,” Hlavacek said. “We are starting to see the post-Title IX athlete who played in college and wants to continue competing. It’s exciting to see more and more female athletes participating across all ages in sports.”
Health and wellness benefits
With participation numbers on the rise, the association is doing all it can to continue those trends. That means staying in frequent communication with athletes with a monthly newsletter sharing up-to-date information, special events, venues, athlete stories, and beneficial health information, and offering health and well-being initiatives at the events.
Included each year in the Athlete Village, along with vendors, sponsors, and other programming, are on-site senior athlete fitness exam (SAFE) screenings by Dr. Becca Jordre, a physical therapist from the University of South Dakota. Dr. Jordre has conducted SAFE screenings at state and National Senior Games since 2011 and reported positive findings for balance testing. During these screenings, athletes are asked about any falls they may have had in the past 12 months and had their balance tested by standing on one leg in a variety of conditions, including with their eyes open and eyes closed, for 30 seconds. “Research shows that Senior Games athletes report fewer falls and better walking speed and balance than the general population,” Hlavacek adds.
In addition to the many health benefits competing brings, athletes also gain other benefits from involvement, such as social opportunities and building friendships. These are the types of advantages the association hopes to use to continue to draw participants to the games. The 2023 National Senior Games will take place in Pittsburgh, Pa., from July 7 to 18. Thus far, registration is outpacing registration numbers from the 2022 Games in Ft. Lauderdale. Registrants include athletes like Eckenrode, who hopes to compete in cycling events and potentially become the oldest athlete to do so in the Games’ history. In training for the upcoming events, Eckenrode bikes almost daily, often riding up to 30 miles twice a week.
“We’re really excited for the Games and to see the athletes that will be competing and their families cheering them on,” Hlavacek says. “We are thrilled to encourage so many senior adults to stay active and come together for an exciting competition and social experience. Because of their participation, athletes are staying healthier, finding success, and having fun. We’re proud to be a part of their experience.”