Wiedmer: 77 locals in senior nationals

Wiedmer: 77 locals in senior nationals

July 23rd, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Betty Case serves during an afternoon pickleball practice at the Francis Wyatt Recreation Center.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

The Frances B. Wyatt Center in North Chattanooga will be less crowded than normal Wednesday morning.

That's because many of the 100-plus 50-and-older athletes who usually fill the Colville Street facility on that day each week to play pickleball, badminton and volleyball are competing in those sports at the National Senior Games in Cleveland, Ohio.

"We have 77 area athletes total at the Games," said Brian Smith of the city's Department of Youth and Family Development (formerly Parks and Rec).

"Not of all them come to the Wyatt Center, but Tennessee overall has the second largest contingent of athletes at the Games behind Ohio. Two years ago in Texas we also had the second largest contingent behind Texas."

Alice Tym is one of 13,000 athletes competing in Cleveland this week. She'll attempt to win gold medals in badminton and table tennis.

Now 71, Tym is perhaps the greatest adopted athletic great in the Scenic City area, having competed in five Wimbledons on her way to reaching the University of Florida Sports Hall of Fame.

"I've competed in the Senior Games for at least 10 years," she said. "It's an opportunity to have fun again playing sports. When it's age-graded, you can still have fierce matches."

How fierce?

When Tym was asked how well the body holds up at 71, she said, "Even if you had an injury, you wouldn't tell anybody, because you're competing and you don't want that person to have an edge."

Then there's 81-year-old Betty Case, who's competing in her 10th nationals.

Attempting to win gold with her 77-year-old sister Barbara Cornwell, Case will compete in doubles in both badminton and pickleball. The latter is sort of, in Tym's words, "a mini version of tennis without an overhead serve."

Also, pickleball is played on a court one-third the size of a tennis court with a lower net, a whiffle-type ball and a paddle instead of a racket.

Anyway, Case has won so many medals in so many sports over the years that she keeps them in a bucket and "gives them to the kids at church on big occasions."

That doesn't mean she doesn't deeply want to win, however.

"Oh, we're going to win," she said with a grin last week. "We've worked hard and prepared well."

But neither the medals nor the victories are her chief motivation for seniors competition, which is bracketed by five-year increments (50-54, 55-59, 60-64, etc.).

"I love the competition," she said. "But I've also made so many new friends through the Senior Games. It's wonderful."

Kelly Price has been with Parks and Rec for 24 years. She's been the facilities manager at the Wyatt Center since 2007. When she first arrived there, she could count no more than 40 seniors using the facility.

"We probably have 120 regulars now," she said. "We're open from 10 each morning to 7:30 each night, and our gym schedule is full. This has become the city's senior gym."

Not every Scenic City senior competing in Cleveland this week calls the Wyatt Center home, though. The Golden Boys basketball team (sponsored by U.S. Legal) will compete in the 60-64 age group, despite its captain, Ed Stec, checking in at 71.

"You have to play at the level of your youngest team member," said Stec, a former football player and wrestler at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"We've qualified for nationals every year, but this is the first year we've competed. Obviously, we're excited."

Comprised of Charlie Carmichael (71), Keith Johnson (65), Jimmy Evett (64), David Ferguson (64), Ken Herrick (63), Harold Dingham (63) and Stec, most of the team has played together for more than a decade, practicing each Wednesday afternoon at East Ridge High School.

"It keeps us old men young," Ferguson said.

And for anyone who thinks these are watered-down events played by worn-down competitors, consider the following quote from 50-year-old Roco Geyne, an elite athlete who formerly played in the Mexican national soccer program and has competed across the globe.

Regarding seniors badminton, Geyne said, "It's harder than any sport I've ever played, except maybe basketball."

Nor does every senior think so little of the medals that they'll one day turn them over to church kids.

Said a smiling Dianne Pendergrass, who'll compete with her husband Mike in the 55-59 pickleball mixed doubles: "I plan on coming home with a medal if I have to knock out a little ol' lady in a parking lot to get one."

But most seem to fall more closely in line with the Golden Boys' Herrick, who said of all those Wednesdays spent in a gym with his buddies: "I look forward to those days as much as Christmas."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.