Polk Senior Games Return This Year With Outdoor Activities
by CATHERINE CERVONE
This year marks the 29th year of the annual Polk Senior Games, the largest of the 20 local senior games held in Florida.
Participants who are turning at least 50 years old in 2022 can participate in a variety of games from February 26 to March 12. Groups are divided by five-year age increments as well as by gender. The top finishers of each event will receive medals, just like in the Olympics. All participants go home with a commemorative T-shirt and the pride in knowing they’ve challenged their bodies and minds to do something great.
Last year’s event had to be canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and some modifications have been made in order to safely bring the event back this year. The board of directors in charge of planning the Polk Senior Games is placed in a difficult position having to make decisions six months before the games are set to take place, Duane Hopkins, the board’s first vice president, said.
While the events typically span from fishing to cribbage to sudoku tournaments, this year’s Polk Senior Games will include outdoor events only. The board aimed to express an abundance of safety and concern for the participants and volunteers involved with the games in making this decision, Hopkins said.
Though the indoor events aren’t being offered this year, Hopkins emphasized this as an opportunity to try something new. If the participant is able, this could be a great way to experience a new or different sport. The board hopes to be able to offer a full range of events in the 2023 games.
The games, even in a smaller capacity, are a great way for seniors to exercise their minds and bodies and interact socially with their community, something that’s especially important as they age. The event typically sees about 2,500 participants, but this year, organizers hope to get about half those numbers.
So many seniors were disappointed last year when the games had to be canceled, Hopkins says. The organization works to provide the games in an effort to help the community.
“We offer events that are designed to satisfy the needs of seniors to get out … and be active physically and mentally,” Hopkins says. With the registration rate proceeding as it is, it’s clear that many are thrilled for the games to be making a return.
Presenting the event is no small task, and on a normal year takes more than 700 volunteers.
“We’re just as concerned about [volunteers’] health as those who participate,” Hopkins says. Along with the volunteers, the games also couldn’t happen without the board of directors and the many gracious sponsors from all over the area.
“It really becomes a community event,” he says, explaining that it brings the community together. “We have a lot of support to make the games happen.”
Because organizers want to include as many participants as possible, entry fees are low and there is no Polk County residency requirement. This allows travelers to participate, as well as residents from all over Florida and those who may just be here for the winter. They regularly have participants from all over the state, and have even had a traveler from Europe! The absence of a residency requirement also increases diversity and helps foster community and friendship.
“I’ve met some wonderful tennis partners,” Hopkins says.
As far as events go, golf tends to be a popular choice. Pickleball is quickly becoming a crowd favorite, though. Hopkins mentions that he will be participating in the tennis event this year as he has for several years. While the more physically-demanding events might seem like they’d tend toward the younger ages, Hopkins says he is continually amazed by the many 90-year-olds who participate in the games. Two years ago, a 103-year-old participant competed in bowling, swimming, and several indoor activities.
The event is free to attend as a guest. “Come and have some fun,” Hopkins said, urging those in attendance to protect themselves and spread out, wearing masks if they’re close to participants and volunteers.
The Polk Senior Games is something special to celebrate. It provides a way for seniors to get out and exercise physically, mentally, and socially, Hopkins says. “I’m proud to be part of the games.”
Frank Collins, president of the organization, says the participants and their camaraderie are a big part of what sets the games apart.
“To me, what makes the Polk Senior Games so special is the people committed to supporting each other,” Collins says.
“And that is now more important than ever.”