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50-and-older athletes still going for gold at Senior Games

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

BURNET — The laughter bounces around the volleyball court as one of the athletes chases down an errant ball. But once the ball makes its way back to the server, the laughter subsides and game faces return.

A lady with a little gray in her hair stands behind the service line, tosses up the ball and then slams it across the court. On the other side of the net, a man, also sporting a bit of gray, digs it out and passes it to a teammate. Soon, an aggressive volley gets under way.

Welcome to Senior Games practice at the YMCA of the Highland Lakes-Galloway Hammond.

“We have all different levels,” said Frances Killingsworth, a senior games competitor and a national gold medalist. “We just divide up, and whoever is here plays. It’s a lot of fun.”

Killingsworth is one of the almost two dozen athletes — mostly seniors (50 and older) but a few masters (35-49) as well — who show up several days a week at the YMCA in Burnet to get in court time. The group plays pickleball 10 a.m.-noon Monday-Thursday and then volleyball 1-4 p.m. Wednesdays. Everybody is welcome.

Greg Pound sets up to serve during senior/master games volleyball practice at the YMCA of the Highland Lakes at Galloway-Hammond in Burnet.
Greg Pound sets up to serve during senior/master games volleyball practice at the YMCA of the Highland Lakes at Galloway-Hammond in Burnet.

“If you show up in the first hour, we look a little better before we all start getting tired out a bit,” said Kathy Barrow after three hours of volleyball May 7. Her “slow” doesn’t, however, look very slow. Even as the last few passes, bumps and serves sail around the court, the athletes play hard, even chasing down balls that would easily fall out of bounds.

Despite their ages, these athletes show little signs of slowing down. Competition still fuels them.

“We’ve been doing this here for more than 10 years,” said Killingsworth, 76, about the regular practices at the Burnet facility. “It’s fun. I’ve made a lot of friends. And that’s one of the best things about it, outside just being active, is the friends. I have friends across the country because of (the Senior Games).”

Barrow agreed.

“I’ve made more international friends than ever,” she added.

Killingsworth, a retired teacher, first began competing in the Senior Games in 1994 in track and field. In 1999, she and a friend formed a basketball team. That same year, Killingsworth joined a volleyball team in the 60-plus age group. The team advanced to the nationals in Orlando, Fla. After a few losses in pool play and a quick loss in the regular bracket, which sent the team to the losers’ bracket, the Texas squad dug down and played hard. The squad then won out and returned home wearing gold medals for volleyball.

This year, the Texas Senior Games Association inducted Killingsworth into its hall of fame. As nice as the honor is, she doesn’t speak of it much but talks more about the games and her friends.

The Senior Games feature just about every competitive sport you can imagine. There are local, state, national and international competitions. The nationals come around every odd-numbered year (the next one is in 2015.)

The 2014 Texas Senior Games were held earlier this year in San Antonio. To advance to the nationals, competitors and teams must qualify through the state level.

Sometimes, you don’t know who you’ll be playing with or even what state you’ll be representing. In 2010, after a series of events, Killingsworth and a few other Texans found themselves playing in the nationals with a team from Delaware.

“We ended up winning the gold medal,” she said with a laugh. “For Delaware.”

And that’s one of the beauties of the Senior Games, it’s not necessarily about where you’re from but about getting involved. Barrow recalled competing in the Huntsman World Senior Games in Utah. The event draws competitors from around the world. She found herself on a volleyball team made up of players from Colorado and a few other states, and from Canada and Germany. The two German athletes had competed in the Olympics.

Barrow’s team won a gold medal at the Huntsman games. As she looked over at the Germans, she saw that one of them was crying.

“I asked her why she was crying. After all, she had played in the Olympics,” Barrow said. “She said (that) sure she’d played in the Olympics, but this was the first time she’d won a gold medal.”

Barrow, like Killingsworth, has traveled across the country competing in the Senior Games. And she’s headed back to the Huntsman World Senior Games in October.

While some athletes such as Killingsworth and Barrow played competitively in their youth and even as adults, it’s not a requirement.

“Oh, no, everybody’s welcome,” Killingsworth said. “Anybody can come out and try it at least.”

While the crew, which meets regularly at the YMCA, focuses on pickleball (imagine badminton played on a tennis court with oversized ping-pong paddles and a whiffle ball) and also volleyball, the senior games offers a list of activities and sports in which to compete including soccer, tennis, horseshoes, golf, cycling, running, walking, swimming and even square dancing.

“It really does keep you active,” Barrow said. “And you make these great friends, and you’re surrounded by some wonderful people.”

Killingsworth agreed.

“There’s a lot of laugher and a lot of fun,” she said. “You get a chance to travel and meet some incredible people. But the friends I’ve made, well, that’s probably one of the best things about it.”

Go to www.seniorgames.net for more on the Huntsman World Senior Games; www.nsga.com for more on the National Senior Games Association; and www.tsga.org for more on the Texas Senior Games. Or, you can just head over to the YMCA in Burnet on Monday-Thursday during the times listed above and listen for the laughter.

daniel@thepicayune.com