Athletes over 50 ready for annual Senior Olympics

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Edwardsville resident Tracey Kane was in her early 30s when she first saw her mother Char Sobkowski compete in the St. Louis Senior Olympics.

Now, two decades later, she’s no longer on the sidelines.

“When 50 snuck up on me, I thought ‘Well, I’ll go ahead and give it a shot,'” said Kane, 52.

“This is the first year my daughter and I are going to compete together so that makes it special,” said Sobkowski, now 75.

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This may be Kane’s first time out but the Senior Olympics is anything but new. Now marking its 32nd year, the annual competition will feature 85 different events in 34 categories. Most of the event lineup, set for Thursday, May 26 to Sunday, May 31, is the same although handball will be coming back on the roster this year after being absent in 2010.

The Memorial Day weekend tradition will be spread across 13 different venues for 2011 with locations as diverse as the Loop’s Blueberry Hill and Willow Brook Elementary School just across the street from the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Complex where events will also be held.

Kickoff ceremonies, which will take place at the Creve Coeur JCC facility, will feature local Olympic legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee as well as Neal E. Boyd, winner of the first season of TV’s “America’s Got Talent.” A vendor fair will highlight the festivities.

Open to ages 50 and older, competitors pay $45 to sign up. The games are free for spectators. Registration will close Friday but the games’ new director Phil Ruben said he’s already seen a jump in the numbers.

“We’re probably up about 10 percent in enrollment so we’re expecting a larger crowd,” he said. “We do have an increase in sponsor revenue so it will be bigger and better. I can promise you that.”

Ruben estimates that nearly $48,000 has poured in from 16 different sponsors representing an almost $10,000 increase over last year. As of last week, the registrations of about 800 athletes had already been input into the system but Ruben believes that total will reach about 1,200 when the rest of the submitted applications are processed.

Events will include football throws, table tennis and tap dance. Ruben said track and field, swimming and bowling are typically the biggest draws for spectators but athletes like all of the competitions, often enjoying the social aspect of interacting with other entrants.

“There are also people who are training for the next competition, either the state or the senior games,” Ruben said. “We don’t have ties to [those games] but they use it for practice.”

Nancy Weigley, now celebrating her third year as chair of the games, agreed.

“People enjoy the competition but I think even more so they enjoy the camaraderie,” she said. “They see people who this is the only time they see them all year.”

The event relies on the work of many volunteers. Organizers encourage members of the community to give a little time. About 400 unpaid helpers are expected.

“It’s such an inspiration to see people compete,” Weigley said. “Whether you just come as a spectator or a volunteer, we’d love to have everyone come out.”

Sobkowski, who will compete in 16 different events from javelin to badminton, was once a volunteer herself. She originally coordinated some of the events back when a number of them were hosted at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.

“It’s a lot of fun. You meet a lot of people who have the same likes that you do,” she said. “You help each other out. It’s not cutthroat or anything like that.”

Still, she admits she was nervous at first about taking the plunge and becoming a competitor.

“Originally, I made my husband try out,” she laughed. “I said, ‘you go first and I’ll see if I like it.'”

Kane will team up with her mother on some events such as bowling but will do others on her own including the softball throw and homerun derby.

“I want to keep active,” Kane said. “Not too long ago, I broke my knee and couldn’t play softball anymore. This gave me the opportunity to be active and also do things with my mom.”

But Sobkowski and Kane don’t want to just be a pair. In fact, they are hoping to create a trio.

“My sister turns 50 this year, so we’re going to see if we can’t get her to participate,” Kane said. “It’s going to be a little bit of a family affair.”

For more information about the St. Louis Senior Olympics, call 314-442-3279.