National Senior Games Celebrate Athletes Young at Heart

Marc Riker dedicates his efforts to allow senior citizens to remain active through the National Senior Games.

2017 Senior Games in Birmingham, Alabama|2017 Senior Games in Birmingham, Alabama|Marc T. Riker, CEO Senior Games

Marc Riker, chief executive officer of the National Senior Games since 2011, says the goals drawing participants to Birmingham, Alabama, this year are as diverse as the event itself. Since 1987, this biennial event has brought athletes ages 50 and over together to compete in 19 sports, including swimming, badminton and basketball. The range of sports is impressive, but pales in comparison to the competitors’ age range (50 to over 100). Riker must handle a variety Riker discusses what inspires him about the event, as the 2017 games (June 2-15) enter their first full week of action in Birmingham.

What sets the National Senior Games apart from other multi-sport competitions?

Our slogan is that we are about fitness, fun and fellowship. Yes, the competition is really important for some to be able to train and prepare themselves to do their personal best, but the social aspect of it and celebrating that moment in time is really what’s special. Our participants range from age 50 to over 100. There is a totally different dynamic of what people at various stages of that age group are dealing with at a given time. When they all come together, there is a uniqueness of watching them together. That is really inspiring. When we hear the 50- and 55-year-olds say how much they enjoy watching the 70-, 80- and 90-year-olds competing, that is really priceless.

Do your participants serve as your recruiters?

That does happen. They realize this is a fun social environment and get involved. We’ve had three generations that have competed at the games, so it becomes a family affair where you have mother, daughter, family and son. Those are unique stories, too. This has become a part of their life. Photo credits: Thomas Coiner and Zachary Kelly

What are some moments from past games that stick with you?

We had a woman who was fascinating back in the early years. She became the first blind teacher in Long Beach, Calif. After she retired, her doctor told her, “I am not going to see you next year; your health is in such poor condition.” He suggested she start swimming, but this woman did not know how to swim. She then learned to swim. She then participated in the California Senior games and then qualified [for the National Senior Games]. We have a scholarship fund where an individual is selected to come and we defray costs and that fund brought her to the games. She was so moved that she started her own foundation to help other seniors. That’s where the endless stuff just keeps spinning off. That story is just the tip of the iceberg, and she has impacted so many people.

What about this year’s games in Birmingham is exciting?

With Birmingham, one thing that is good is we try to create a synergy of proximity of events because the seniors like to watch others competing and enjoy this human spirit of what life is like. From the airport, it’s not even a 10-minute ride to the convention center. Six of 19 sports are contested there. We have almost half of our sports all within a 5-mile radius. It creates an excitement because all of those folks are around and it creates a buzz and then everyone feels good about it.

What has contributed to the event’s long-term success?

I think the idea is that we have to look at such a broad brush of things. We are trying to assess what is in the mind of a 50-year-old and how are they assessing things differently from an 80-year-old? Some participants still want print and paper materials, some want electronic options. We have to be flexible in trying to understand where people are in their difference, and then we have the fact that we have novice athletes where people have never done this sport until they were 60 or 65, and then you have folks who have played tennis their entire life. We have to take into consideration how we are trying to appeal to novice, elite, the different genders and the different age groups.

Photo credit: Thomas Coiner