Friday, August 8, 2008

Olympic games under way locally


In white T-shirts emblazoned with a torch and wreath decorated with flags from around the world, nearly 50 residents of the Valle Verde retirement facility in Santa Barbara marched one mile around the complex yesterday to commemorate the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics.
But not the Olympics in Beijing, China. These Santa Barbara residents, most of whom are well over the age of 80, were giddy with excitement not to watch U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps win a slew of medals, but to kick-off the fifth Valle Verde Senior Olympics, which is held every four years in step with the real Olympic Games.

Paul Edwards, 93, will be competing in the table tennis and golf events. Jimmie Robinson, 89, who is a veteran of the games and will be competing in her fifth Olympics, will try her luck at the spelling bee, which her husband almost won during the 2004 games. Helen Chuan, 81, hopes to top the list of more than 28 registered competitors in the bridge competition.
Some will participate in wheel chairs. Others, too ill or unwilling to play, will watch from the sidelines. While others will walk great distances to win the walkathon, or repetitively swim laps to gain an upper hand in that event.
For the next seven days, Valle Verde residents of any skill level can compete in a number of activities ranging from bingo to jacks.
Valle Verde Director of Fitness Suzie Swenson said she invented the games in 1992 as a way to get residents excited about fitness, but mostly to create a sense of community.
“It’s such a good social time,” she said. “I think it brings a real positive spirit to the community.”
Swenson said she expects about half of the facility’s roughly 400 residents to participate.
While the Valle Verde games are notably small-scale compared to the real thing, Swenson said some residents take the events seriously. She said the men’s horseshoe competition is one of the most competitive.
As the group of athletes made their way around the complex, roads were blocked and residents not participating for one reason or another cheered their friends on, taking pictures as they passed by.
The participants waved American and Olympic flags. Some rode electric wheelchairs with flags taped to the fenders. And as the march concluded in a courtyard lined with shuffleboards that will act as Olympic headquarters, Valle Verde officials gave motivational speeches before the Olympic flag was raised.
“Let the Olympic spirit soar at Valle Verde,” one staff member said. “One world, one dream.”
Paul Edwards, a painter by trade who was once an animator for Walt Disney, said he looks forward to the Olympics because he’s asked to paint the posters for the events.
“It’s a big deal,” he said.
Jimmie Robinson, who is 89 but prefers to say she’s in her 90th year because it gives her more clout around Valle Verde, said she’s happily competed in every Senior Olympics so far.
“A lot of work goes into it,” she said. “It’s good for the spirit and keeps people’s spirits up.”
A torch was carried at the front of the march. It was passed off eight times to residents in each of the eight different housing zones that make up Valle Verde.
While the residents will be focused on their own athletic exploits over the next week, they’ll also have a chance to view historical Olympic films like “Chariots of Fire,” which will be screened tonight in the theater. Swenson said yesterday’s opening ceremony in Beijing will be recorded and played later on screens throughout the facility.
At the conclusion of the formalities, the athletes, spent after the long opening ceremonies walk beneath the Santa Barbara sun, celebrated with beer, cocktails and food from around the world.
In Santa Barbara, it’s unlikely any place in the city was so flush with Olympic spirit as Valle Verde. And if the Olympians in Beijing could take one thing away from the Valle Verde games, let it be the lessons learned by longtime resident Barbara Kucera.
“I think it is important,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you fail. You fail and you move onto the next thing.”

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