Active Adults & Polk Senior Games
By Merlisa Lawrence Corbett
Brian Toune, 72, likes to joke about his lifetime involvement in sports.
“I was never very good. I was 5’10” when I was in eighth grade. I’m still 5’ 9 (and a) 1/2,” said Toune. “So I went from the center on the basketball team in eighth grade to a freshman who was too short to play guard.”
Toune moved on to other sports, including tennis and golf. He even taught golf for 30 years. His latest passion is pickleball, one of the fastest growing sports in North America.
A cross between ping-pong and badminton, pickleball is played on abbreviated tennis courts. Winter Haven, Lakeland, Auburndale and Lake Wales, all have growing pickleball communities.
Toune took up the sport two years ago. He said matches are fun, yet competitive.
Like many seniors, who continue to play sports, Toune finds competition is good for mind, body, and soul.
“First, it gets you out of the house and away from the TV,” Toune said. “Secondly, you find out that you are more capable of doing things that you didn’t think you could. You end up being so much more physically capable of doing things that shock you.”
Pickleball is among the many events held during the Polk Senior Games, from February 28 through March 16.
The senior games offer competitive-minded people a chance to put their skills to the test. Whether it’s fly-fishing, pickleball, or bowling, competition keeps the mind sharp and the body moving. It also reminds seniors that setting goals and chasing dreams are lifelong pursuits.
The term “active adult” is a generic phrase often used to push everything from vitamins to condominiums. It fails to capture the sporting nature of those who incorporate competitive play into their active lives.
“My hand-eye coordination has really grown from pickleball,” said Toune. “My wife and I both play pickleball and we both play tennis. It’s just made a difference in our tennis game.”
Improving their games and enhancing their lives are a couple of reasons some seniors are experiencing an uptick in competitive play.
A few of the pickleballers plan to compete in the senior games, open to people who are 50 and older.
Winners of the Polk Senior Games can advance to the Florida Senior Games and compete for a chance to qualify for the biannual National Senior Games.
The Polk Senior Games have grown from just over 700 participants in 1992 to nearly 2,500 in 2013.
The Senior Games take place at different venues throughout the county, over two weeks in Olympic-style competition.
Not many of the young ones come out, said Robin Wickman, of South Lakeland. By young, Wickman means those just turning 50.
Last year Wickman, who turns 70 in March, won best in his age group. This year he moves up to the 70-75 age group.
“The older you get the more people drop out,” said Wickman. However, he adds that, “Some of these guys are something else.” He’s facing tough competition from a guy who he said swam for the U.S. Navy team.
Wickman, who grew up in Clearwater, competes in more sporting events in the Polk Senior Games than he ever did in high school.
“I tried swimming one year in high school,” Wickman said. “We didn’t have a pool or anything. We had to use one on the beach. It wasn’t heated and it was cold.”
He also tried football and softball. “I was never good enough to get a scholarship,” said Wickman. “But I’ve always been active.”
Like Toune, Wickman is enjoying a late surge in his athletic life. He competed in eight swimming events last year and 13 events overall. He plans to try shot put and discus throwing this year.
He’s has become more involved in sports since he retired from owning a Chevrolet dealership in Bartow.
“I didn’t have time when I was working,” Wickman says. “I retired in 2008 and thought, you know I’ve got time to get in shape for something.”
Wickman swims three times a week at the YMCA near Cleveland Heights. Swimming is his best sport, but he’s tried punt, pass and kick. “It’s hard to beat some of the bigger guys who played football.”
He’s also competed in the long jump, triple jump and javelin. “I didn’t do any of those in high school.”
More than merely a way to stay in shape, competitive sports provides seniors with extra incentives: titles, medals and records.
It’s also a way to connect with friends and like-mind seniors. Leticia Otero plays pickleball regularly with friends in Winter Haven. She played tennis for 40 years before picking up pickleball four years ago. She loves the sport so much she no longer plays tennis.
Besides pickleball, the senior games include basketball, golf, racquetball, road races, tennis, track and field, powerlifting, ballroom dancing, bowling, trap shooting and a host of other recreational games and sports.
Every game or sport represents another opportunity to compete, a chance to prove to oneself that you’re never too old to learn something new.
To register for or for more info on Polk Senior Games visit PolkSeniorGames.org or call 863-533-0055.