The J gets set for 40th annual St. Louis Senior Olympics

The 2019 St. Louis Senior Olympics will take place May 23-28. File photo

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Shaare Emeth congregant Brian Goldman still remembers helping to put down the lines for the softball fields in preparation for the Senior Olympics at the young age of 12. 

“It was my first job ever,” said the Creve Coeur resident. “From there, I went to bar mitzvah lessons.” 

Today, he has another reason to remember the senior games. He’ll be a competitor. 

“I’m making my brother do it with me,” said Goldman who, at age 50, now qualifies for the event after having been involved with it in various staff and volunteer capacities for almost the entirety of its existence. “We’re going to try it all.” 

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This year’s Senior Olympics will mark the 40th anniversary of the annual competition, which expects to draw roughly 1,100 athletes in about 90 different events from badminton to bocce at venues spread all across the St. Louis area May 23-28. The first day of the gathering will focus on special festivities including an expanded AARP Fitness Fair, a tap dance exhibition and a sports panel discussion. The day will culminate in a 6 p.m. “Walk of Ages,” a mile-long stroll for seniors and their families. 

“We encourage all the seniors to bring their children and grandchildren,” said games director Phil Ruben. “Oftentimes it is parents and grandparents watching the kids play games. We always say that it is now the kids’ and the grandkids’ turn to watch the grandparents compete.” 

It is quite a journey from the very first iteration of the games in 1980 when a small crew of supporters organized them as part of a special event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Jewish Community Center. It was meant only as a one-time event. 

“Then the letters started pouring in — one after another after another after another,” said Ruben. “‘When are you doing it again? I need to train better. I want to try this event next year. I’ve got all these friends, brothers, cousins, co-workers that want to do it.’”

Myrna Hershman of Frontenac was the chair of the original event and she’s been involved in one way or another ever since. 

“It changes the view of older people,” she said. “You usually thought of older people as people at a nursing home or who were frail. Here you had people who were in their 60s, 70s and 80s participating.” 

Today, Hershman is one of 200 or so volunteers who work in various ways to help make the event happen. 

Of course, Hershman admits that there is one way she doesn’t get involved — actually competing — an endeavor she said she tried only once in her late 50s when she registered for the one-mile walk.

“I was left in the dust by the 80-year-olds,” she laughed. “I figured I was better running the event than running in it.” 

Still, her bravery in making the attempt is in the spirit of the Senior Olympics, which encourage people to do what they can and achieve their own potential. 

“My only advice is that if you feel you can do it, get out and try,” said athlete Irwin “Toddy” Goldman. “You’ll love it.” 

Goldman, who is no relation to Brian Goldman, would certainly know. The 95-year-old Shaare Emeth congregant will be making his 39th straight appearance at the event when he competes in shuffleboard and cornhole — a kind of beanbag-style tossing game. Previously, he’s been involved in everything from volleyball to horseshoes. 

“I enjoyed every minute of it and can’t wait to get back this year,” he said. 

Like so many others, the Creve Coeur resident cites the camaraderie of the games as his favorite part. In fact, sometimes relationships move beyond athletic conviviality. 

“I’ve met a few who have met their mates and married over the years,” he said. 

Former athlete Erich Dahl was also a regular competitor over the years until he was sidelined by injuries. Now 99 years old, his last appearance in the competition was in 2014. 

“It was great to me all those years,” said Dahl, a Holocaust survivor. “I wish I could do it some more.” 

He said that between his time in St. Louis and his efforts at a similar event in Cleveland, he believes he won more than 300 medals through the decades. 

“I don’t think I would be 99 if it hadn’t been for all those years I spent running,” he said. 

Keeping in shape is one reason to compete and it can be surprising the amount of dedication that some put into it. Hershman likes to recall the story of a fellow who entered a bike-racing event only to finish a distant last place. 

“He said, ‘Next year, I’m going to come and I’m not going to be blown away,” she remembered. 

He bought a better bike, lost 20 pounds and trained heavily. The following year the man came in first.

“That was one of the good outcomes,” she said. “People saw that if they took care of themselves and exercised, they could do these things.” 

But it is more often looking to achieve a personal best than simply competing. Ruben said it is not unusual to see opponents rooting for each other. 

“More times than not, people are cheering for you to beat them,” he said. “I’ve seen times where people are holding hands crossing the finish line.” 

Hershman said that it was interesting to think of how much the event has expanded over time. Originally, athletes were grouped in three categories with the oldest being 65-plus. Today, so many nonagenarians are competing that they have an individual category just for those age 90 and up. 

“Who knows? In 20 years, we may have a 100-plus category,” she said. 

Registration to compete in the event is now closed but if you have questions or wish to ask about volunteering opportunities, contact Phil Ruben at 314-442-3279 or Jason P. Davis at 314-442-3216. 

St. Louis Senior Olympics

WHAT: The J will hold the 40th annual games, which include 1,100 athletes age 50 and up competing in 90 events. 

WHEN: May 23-28

WHERE:  Various locations around the St. Louis area