AABP Award 728x90

A competition greater than gold


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Jed Fisk wasn’t sure he would ever walk again when he went in the hospital for back surgery last September. The vice president of corporate services for Principal Financial Group Inc. started the healing process by using a walker and wearing a brace like an 1800s corset to make it past two houses before he had to stop. Now, on June 13, he will compete in the 5,000-meter race walk as part of the Iowa Senior Olympics to prove how far he’s come.

Though some men start eyeing Corvettes around the milestone of 50 years, Don Tripp, director of the Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department, chose to get in shape instead. He made a deal on his February birthday two years ago that if he worked out 100 times before the Iowa Senior Olympics, he would compete. “It was a way for me to get back into the gym and exercise and try to be a little more healthy,” said Tripp, who will likely compete in his third Olympics this year.

Such examples are what Iowa Senior Olympics Executive Director Dan Lake hopes is the impact of the annual four-day summer event, where more than 600 athletes over the age of 50 compete in more than 50 events, including track and field, swimming, basketball, free-throw contests and even a Scrabble tournament. This year, the competition will be held June 11-14 at Valley High School in West Des Moines.

“Our mission, if you will, is to get people involved in a healthy fitness-oriented lifestyle,” Lake said. “We want them up off the couch. … What I really enjoy is seeing someone participate for the first time and going, ‘Wow, that was cool, but I want to do better next year.'”

Let the games begin

The Iowa Senior Olympics were founded as the result of a West Des Moines community survey that indicated that seniors did not have enough activities to do. Planners took a trip to St. Louis, where the concept of the Senior Olympics was just getting started. In 1987, the city hosted the first Iowa Senior Olympics, with 167 participants. Last year, the competition drew more than 600 athletes and the goal is to increase it to 1,000. In 2008, competitors came from 15 states, including Hawaii, and represented 124 Iowa cities.

About 10 percent of the athletes train year-round, participate in several athletic events and are looking to compete at a high level, Lake said.

But the majority are in it for the social aspect.

“There’s a fair element of social interaction with the games that’s just as important as the competition,” Fisk said.

It takes more than 125 volunteers to run the event, which was how Lake got hooked into eventually becoming director of the entire thing; he was asked to run the swim meet and enjoyed it so much that he got more and more involved every year. On his fifth Senior Olympics as director, Lake started as an employee working 15 to 20 hours a week. Now he’s paid for about 25 to 30 hours, though he said it’s more like a full-time job.

Originally run by the West Des Moines Community School District, the event broke off as a stand-alone 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization about 10 years ago. Lake remains housed in the Learning Resource Center, providing some support for community education programs in exchange for a desk, computer and other office supplies.

The transition to independent nonprofit status has given the group more flexibility to raise funds and grow. This year, it has a $75,000 budget, about $55,000 of which has come from sponsorships. Though the number of sponsors is down to 22 this year from 29 last year, the total dollars are up, Lake said.

A higher bar

Lake would eventually like to increase the group’s budget to six figures, which would allow him to expand the annual competition to more events year-round and increase the organization’s visibility in the community. Part of this he has already started through e-newsletters and other Internet outreach, but the demographic the Senior Olympics appeals to is not entirely computer savvy. Plus it requires more time and support beyond what the 14-member volunteer board can give.

“We want to do new stuff, but maintaining the current things takes quite a bit of time,” he said. “It’s finding the time to devote to developing new activities.”

This year’s games will feature around 50 events. Recently added is a father/son golf tournament (mothers and daughters also are included) and the granny basketball state tournament.

“Those ladies are awesome and they’re hard core, too,” Lake said. “Probably two-thirds of the accident reports I had last year were grannies – twisted ankles, diving for loose balls, banging their heads on the floor.”

The Senior Olympics also added Scrabble in 2004, the only non-athletic event, which has grown from six players to around 30. Retired Principal CEO G. David Hurd, who has helped run the tournament, said while some are intimidated by the Des Moines Scrabble Club’s weekly sessions, “they’re willing to have a go at this simple tournament.”

Other events under consideration are the javelin throw and archery if safety issues can be worked out, Lake said. He also would like to start working with companies’ wellness departments to offer the games as an incentive for employees to get in shape.

Not a senior

Another challenge is getting past the term “senior,” especially for the Baby Boomer generation under age 70, Lake said. “There’s a stigma attached to the dirty ‘s-word,'” he said, “and what we’re trying to get across to that age group is that we know it says Senior Olympics but this is for you.”

But at age 52, Tripp said it doesn’t bother him. In fact, the qualifying times for nationals, which he’s looked at with the possibility of trying to qualify when he has more time to train, “have certain races that are very, very tough,” he said.

Tripp’s biggest challenge has been being able to compete. His first year in the Senior Olympics, he tore his hamstring a week before the competition, and last year he was managing flood relief efforts for the city. But the former high school and college football player has competed in track and field events and even set records in the basketball “Around the World” competition and the football field goal kick at 35 yards. “There was a good wind,” he joked.

His biggest achievement, however, came in a sobering experience. Shortly after Tripp’s first Senior Olympics in 2007, he fell off a ladder and broke eight ribs and two bones in his back. The doctor told him that being in such good shape may have saved his life.

Fisk not only will complete his momentous walk this year, but also will compete in shuffleboard and bocce ball, after being on the sidelines as a volunteer and board member for the past few years. He will still remain in charge of coordinating event directors this year as well, and his wife, Debbie – the “athlete of the family” – will compete in swimming.

As he continues to get in shape after his back operation, Fisk has set a new goal for next year: to play golf.

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