Staying in the Game

Polk Senior Games Help Seniors Stay Active and Involved


During her younger years in her Michigan hometown, Dot Van Farowe says she participated in a variety of sports and leisure activities.

But at 91 years old, Van Farowe’s days of “pass, punt and kick” football, playing basketball, water and snow skiing and long jumps are over. But that hasn’t stopped the Lakeland resident from continuing to take part in the annual Polk Senior Games.

The Senior Games, which this year were held from Feb. 29 to March 12, have been held in the county since 1992. Open to anyone 50 and older, the games are designed to promote friendly competition, fellowship, health, wellness and volunteerism and are qualifiers for the state and national Senior Games. They provide challenges for serious competitors, recreational participants and the physically challenged.

Most of the events are grouped by gender in five-year age increments. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded in each event and age division and Polk County residency isn’t required.

During the bowling competition in Lakeland’s Orange Bowl Lanes bowling alley March 11, Van Farowe, who retired as a registered nurse in 1994, bowls her second frame. 

With a score of 113, Van Farowe, a seasonal Lakeland resident, says she’s having a bit of an “off day” but is still having fun. She says the Polk Senior Games amount to more than just ribbons or trophies.

“The main thing is I’m happy to get up and do this; I’m very blessed. It’s just a fun thing and a fun way to meet people. The sports are fun, but I like to win, though,” she adds with a smirk, waiting for her next turn at the lane. 

Executive Director Deena Wilbur says 2,488 seniors registered to participate in the 2020 games, hailing from Florida, 18 other states and as far away as Puerto Rico and Canada. Additionally, about 125 senior communities were represented. 

Among the approximately 99 events in 36 sports and games for 2020 were: 

  • Archery
  • Cornhole
  • Basketball shooting and 3-on-3
  • Billiards
  • Field events
  • Fishing
  • Golf
  • Horseshoes
  • Lawn bowling
  • Racquetball
  • 5K road race
  • Shooting
  • Shuffleboard
  • Softball
  • Swimming
  • Tennis 
  • Track 

The competitions take place in various venues throughout Polk County, including All Saints’ Academy in Winter Haven, Southwest Complex in Lakeland, Ariana Beach Clubhouse in Auburndale, Kirkland Gym in Lake Wales, and the Haines City Community Center.

For each event – overseen by individual event managers — gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded in each age group and event. Special awards for “Best of Age Groups,” “Outstanding Competitor,” “Outstanding Volunteers,” “Outstanding Event Managers” and “Most Represented Senior Community” are usually given out at the Closing Ceremony. Unfortunately, this year’s Closing Ceremony was canceled because of coronavirus health concerns.

To enter, athletes pay $10 for the first event and $3 for each additional event up to a maximum of $28. Additional fees were set for bowling, golf, archery, shooting and team sports. All entrants got a Senior Games T-shirt designed by artist Alison Lamons.

Wilbur is serving her 27th year as executive director – the only paid staff position. She is assisted by about 750 volunteers who keep the games on track.

“But the best thing about (the Senior Games) are the friendships that are developed,” says Wilbur, who lives in Lakeland. “They might not get medals, but they still have a lot of fun and fellowship.”

Staying active and involved is a key way to maintain a healthy lifestyle in the “golden years,” according to The National Senior Games Association. According to the Association, aging is linked to a decrease in aerobic fitness, strength, and lean body mass resulting from conditions such as osteoporosis, sarcopenia and injuries from falls. Leading active lifestyles helps seniors preserve fitness and maintain independence. 

In addition, leisure activities, participation in sports, and moderate physical exercise have three significant benefits in older people: They create psychological benefits, provide social support, and can enhance overall physical health of seniors while providing comradery.

Friendship is definitely one of the main reasons 86-year-old Bobby Lucas of Lakeland has returned to take part in the Polk Senior Games for the past 12 years. The retired U.S. Navy master chief who lives in Lakeland with his wife, Evelyn, won a Bronze medal in bowling for 2020. In the past, he says he used to take part in basketball, softball and horseshoes, for which he won a Gold Medal in 2010. 

“It’s really about meeting different people – the veterans and others. It’s very fun. For the senior citizens, it’s the greatest thing ever,” says Lucas, originally from Charleston, West Virginia. “Healthwise, it keeps people from just sitting at home and instead coming out and exercising and having some fun fellowship.”

The Polk County Senior Games were founded in 1992 by Nancye Thornberry of Lakeland, inspired by her 70-year-old brother who competed at the National Senior Games in Syracuse, New York.

Each year, the Polk Senior Games continue to grow and evolve. In 1992, 777 people competed, according to Senior Game statistics. By 2002, there were 2,280, and 10 years later, there were 2,540.  

The continued growth and popularity of the Polk Senior Games are inspiring, says Wilbur. She says she plans to lead the games once again in 2021.

“They (Senior Games) encourage active lifestyles and friendly competitions and volunteerism,” she says. “They incorporate it all.”

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