Competition, camaraderie at heart of Senior Olympics

Photos courtesy JCC

By David Baugher. Special to the Jewish Light

It is double chai for the St. Louis Senior Olympics as it celebrates the 36th annual iteration of the venerable Jewish Community Center-hosted sports competition for men and women age 50 and older.

“The camaraderie is really the best thing,” said Phil Ruben, director of the event.

This year, dozens of competitions will take place across 13 venues ranging from biking in Columbia Bottoms to darts at Blueberry Hill.

The competition begins Thursday, May 21, with an afternoon tap dance exhibition followed by pickleball and tennis. On Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. into the early evening, olympians will compete in everything from horseshoes to shuffleboard and water volleyball to soccer.

The games will take Sunday off due to Shavuot and resume with a half-day of events on Monday that will include such classics as weightlifting and plug casting. The competition  will conclude with a morning golf tournament at Forest Park on Tuesday.

Ruben said a few changes have been made to the lineup of events. Handball and bulletball have been dropped in favor of a nine-ball billiards event and an ultimate Frisbee team competition. Some locations have been changed. Due to the sale of JCC land for development, the baseball and softball home run derbies will take place at the Fox Building facility in Chesterfield instead of in Creve Coeur.

Ruben said he expects about 1,100 athletes and 300 volunteers to participate this year. Registration is closed for competitors, but people who want to give time to help organizers are still welcome.

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“The volunteers are passionate and come here every year because they love the event so much,” he said. “The athletes come here and form friendships and bonds with people whom they’ve competed with and against over the years.”

That’s certainly the case for Jack Skilling, 78, of University City.

“It’s all about seeing some people again that I’ve competed against before,” said Skilling, who will be marking his 24th year in the games. “We just have a good time.”

Skilling will compete in a variety of events including bocce ball, swimming and bowling.

“No matter how bad or how good you are, you are just having fun,” he said. “A lot more people should be involved in it.”

For first-time competitor Bob Sova, 63, of St. Ann, there is a bittersweet reason for joining the games.

“My father died in November of last year,” he said. “He attended every single Senior Olympics since it started.”

Sova, who will compete in several events including bocce ball and washers, said several family members also will play a part in the event.

He described his father, Leonard, as a lifelong competitor who stayed active in his later years as a triathlete until he was sidelined by a stroke.

“He was very athletic,” Sova said. “He’d get upset if he didn’t win gold.”

Rick Kettler of Sappington, who has turned 65 and will be competing in a new age group, is finishing his first decade as a participant in the games.

“I do it because this is a continuation of staying active,” he  said. “The camaraderie is wonderful. You meet new people and see a lot of the same ones.”

Sappington will be competing in football and the Frisbee throws, among other events. But he has had to cut back to 10 events this year.

“I normally do 16 or 17 but, nearly two months ago, I had arthroscopy on my right knee,” he said.

That means no badminton or high jump, but Sappington is still happy to be out among the other athletes and hopes to take part in more events next year when his knee can take the effort.

“I’ll be back with a vengeance next year,” he said.

For a full schedule of the 36th Annual St. Louis Senior Olympics, visit