Talking about the Greater New Orleans Senior Olympics and its long slate of events could become a numbers game: How fast? How far? How long? And even how old?
Although there is plenty of serious competition, treasurer and longtime participant Bernice Bordelon, of Metairie, emphasizes that the games are really about people: “Some people are not athletic, but we still want them to have fun and participate.”
“We want everyone up and moving and being around other people,” added program director Janey Perez, of Mandeville.
The health benefits of remaining active in later years are many. Just ask Bordelon, 83. She attributes her recovery from a 2007 stroke to being involved in the Senior Olympics.
“Not only me, but my doctor said that,” Bordelon said. “Before the stroke, I was very active in track and field, sprints, high jump, long jump, volleyball and softball.”
During her 19 days is the hospital, including rehab time, the games “were good motivation, a big part of my recovery.” Today, she continues to compete; her main sport is weightlifting.
Some numbers count
All that said, some numbers about the games are important. One is looming large: The Greater New Orleans Senior Olympics are turning 30 years old this spring. The board plans to mark the anniversary by honoring participants from 1989, the inaugural year, at the its end-games celebration. Events take place Feb. 16-April 19, and the time for those 50 and over to sign up is now.
Thirty also is the approximate number of the events being offered. They range from traditional sports such as track and field, basketball and volleyball to bocce, bridge, mini-golf and even arts and crafts. Participants compete in various ages groups.
Here are some other important numbers. Last year, 882 people participated in the Greater New Orleans games, which include Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes.
The largest age groups, Perez said, are 70-74, 75-79 and 80-84. “And I’ve seen that move up,” she added. “It used to be 60-64 and 65-69 were the largest, but those people moved up.
“Nowdays, the difference I see is that people are working longer. …. When we first started you had to be 55; when the rule changed (to 50), team events seemed to pick up more so than individual. Lots of (individual) events are during the workday, but team events are on weekends.”
The oldest participants are 94-95, Perez said, and they tend to be bridge players.
Behind the scenes
Perez and Bordelon are the heart of the organization. Bordelon has been with it almost since its inception, and Perez since she's been old enough.
Perez went from competitor to program director nine years ago. At 70, the self-described jock plays volleyball, and her teams regularly have qualified for nationals. “This will be my 11th (nationals), and it only takes place every other year,” she said.
Bordelon, who has competed for 29 years, also works as a volunteer recruiter for the games, going into senior centers with demonstrations and passing out entry forms. “The activities can become part of a center’s program,” she said.
The Olympics are an independent national organization with a chapter in each state. “We’re not backed by any organization. … We rely on sponsors. Peoples Health has been a (main) sponsor since 2004,” Bordelon said.
There are only two paid, part-time employees: Perez and Mary Toti, the resource and development director of about five years. All the other people who help with the huge organizational task of putting on the games are volunteers.
Although active in five parishes, the Olympics have a special relationship with Jefferson and St. Bernard, Perez said.
Jefferson Parish is an in-kind sponsor, providing grants to help pay salaries. Interest in the games is high there, too: Almost every Jefferson Council on Aging senior center has teams that practice and play each other during the year, Bordelon said. The parish also pays their entry fees to the games, Perez added.
The St. Bernard Parish Council on Aging not only hosts the Senior Olympics’ largest event, bean bag baseball, on the south shore at the Val Reiss Center, but it also pays the fees and transports its seniors to events.
Bordelon stressed that those who don’t belong to senior centers can still be on teams. Interested people need only apply; she takes the registrations and forms more teams. And many events are individual.
Fun and games
The most popular event is also the most accessible: bean bag baseball. “Anybody can play,” Perez said. “You can use a walker or be in a wheelchair. If you have Alzheimer’s, one of our volunteers will stay with that person.”
Players make an underhand toss to a board with holes numbered to correspond with baseball bases; if a beanbag goes in, the player walks to the “bases,” a row of chairs behind the board.
“There’s a little smack talk and cheering each other on. They just have a great old time.”
The most competitive sports tend to be the more traditional ones, such as volleyball, basketball, cycling and especially track and field. The national games skew toward these more physical sports.
Perez mentioned two of the more serious athletes from the organization: Bill Jenkins, of Metairie, who competes in swimming and the 5K and 10K races locally, also runs marathons. In addition, he’s run races in every state in the country, and on every continent, Bordelon said. Robert Baker, also of Metairie, competes in track and field and softball locally, and has competed in the world games in Europe for track and field.
But as in all the activities, there are those who favor the fun over the rivalry.
“At the state track meet this year, we were there till 6 p.m.,” Perez said. “There were so many in the throwing events: javelin, discus, shot put and hammer throw. Bernice (Bordelon) explained that when you get really old that’s all you can do is throw stuff. I never thought about it like that, but it’s true. There was a 102-year-old lady who participated.”
On the other side of the spectrum, mini golf and Texas Hold ’em players are more laid-back.
There’s also a purely social aspect to the games. At some events, “you have 200 at a time seniors, playing and laughing,” Bordelon said.
All these things — the socializing, friendly competition and serious athletics — add up to prove one of the Senior Olympics’ messages: Age, after all, is just another number.
For a full list of events and locations and to register, go to www.gnoso.net. For more information, call Bordelon at (504) 834-5279 or Perez at (504) 296-8200. Anyone 50 or older as of Dec. 31, 2018 is eligible; athletes 40 and over can sign up for track and field, basketball and softball.