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Let the Games Begin

Author: Karen Hart
June, 2011 Issue

For participants in the Sonoma Wine Country Senior Games, age is merely a state of mind.


“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”

That’s the question Leroy “Satchel” Paige, an African-American baseball player, once posed. Born in 1906, Paige’s longevity in the game was legendary. He was a right-handed pitcher and, at age 42, the oldest rookie to play Major League Baseball. He played with the St. Louis Browns until the age of 47, and represented them in the Major League All-Star Game in 1952 and 1953.

In 1965, about 60 years after his birth, Paige took the mound for the last time, throwing three shutout innings for the Kansas City Athletics. In 1971, Paige was given the ultimate honor when he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Feel the moment

Like Paige, Sonoma County seniors will soon have the chance to show their athletic skills. The inaugural Sonoma Wine Country Senior Games will take place June 2 to 5 in various venues around the county. The theme is “Feel the Moment,” and people ages 50 and better of any ability level are encouraged to compete. “This is an opportunity to have people experience the joy of participating in the events. It’s about living your passion, being alive and feeling the moment,” says Dena Lash, director of the senior games, who serves on the board at Council on Aging (COA). According to Lash, the only qualification needed to compete is passion.

Sonoma County’s COA offers the typical services you might expect for seniors such as transportation, long-term care coordination, the Meals on Wheels program and more, but last year, it made the decision to broaden its scope and bring the senior games to Sonoma County.

The senior games is a national event that began in 1985, when a group of seven men and women met to plan the first National Senior Olympic Games. The games were held in 1987 in St. Louis and drew 2,500 athletes. The second national event happened two years later and brought in 3,500 athletes. Today, the senior games take place in various cities across the country. The National Senior Games Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to motivating adults to lead healthy, active lifestyles.

A national movement

“The senior games is a national movement,” says Marrianne McBride, president and chief executive officer at COA. “It’s an opportunity for senior athletes to compete and move to a higher level. There are thousands of highly competitive senior athletes in the United States, so the movement is all about the competition. The difference with Wine Country Senior Games is that, while we want to provide a platform for competition, we also want to encourage our community to get out and get active, even if it’s for the first time.”

According to McBride, COA typically provides “downstream” services to seniors who are frail, struggling and need assistance. The senior games, on the other hand, provide an “upstream” program that’s more preventive in nature and encourages seniors to age in a healthy and active way.

COA was inspired to bring the senior games to Sonoma County when its manager of development, Stephanie Domenichelli, attended the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, an international senior sports competition that brings in as many as 10,000 athletes and 4,000 visitors each year.

“We were looking for a fund-raiser,” says McBride. “Stephanie went to the [Huntsman World] Games in October, and when she came back, she said, ‘This is it. This is what we need to do.’ We’ve been going at warp speed since then with incredible support from the community. It’s great to be involved in something that everyone wants to be a part of.” Local sponsors include Kaiser Permanente, St. Joseph Health System, the Flamingo Resort Hotel, Santa Rosa Junior College, verihealth, Santa Rosa Convention & Visitors Bureau, the City of Santa Rosa and more.

Senior games

The Sonoma Wine Country Senior Games will take place in various venues around the county, and home base for the athletes will be the Flamingo Resort Hotel in Santa Rosa. Participants will compete in eight sports, including swimming, soccer, basketball, running, bocce ball, golf, tennis and bowling. The events will take place at Santa Rosa Junior College (basketball and swimming) as well as other venues such as Asti Winery in Cloverdale (trail run), Juilliard Park in Santa Rosa (bocce ball), Windsor Golf Club (golf), Trione Field in Santa Rosa (soccer) and Double Decker Lanes in Rohnert Park (bowling).

St. Joseph’s Health System will offer participants free health screenings, checking blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose as well as testing for diabetes risk. Afterward, participants will receive a health consultation at the event. They’ll also enjoy Sonoma-focused festivals, social events, food and wine experiences and more.

COA plans to make the senior games a world-class, Olympic-format, international sporting event. It hopes to achieve a number of goals by bringing the senior games to Sonoma County. “We hope to do for Sonoma County what the Huntsman Games are doing for Utah,” says McBride. “The intent is to bring people into Sonoma County and to promote local businesses and tourism.” Currently, seniors from all over the state of California have signed up to compete, but the intent is for the senior games to become an international event.

According to Lash, COA hopes the senior games will also dispel the myth that the golden years aren’t so golden. “There’s this myth many people have that, as you age, you can’t be a part of life and you aren’t experiencing the challenges and joy of being in the world,” says Lash. “Age shouldn’t define how you live your life. Instead, as you get older, it’s great to redefine where you are in the world, because you’re no longer defined by your job.”

“We’re hoping to get a lot of people,” says Shirley Fee, who’ll be serving as the race director for the senior games. “Participating in the games is a first step toward going to the senior Olympics, where you have to finish the course within a certain time. We don’t have a time limit. This is about the doing—and knowing that you can.”

Fee hopes the event draws people of all abilities. “You have to put the ‘I can’t’ or I’m too old’ attitude aside,” says Fee, age 70, who started running competitively at age 58. Fee won’t be competing in the senior games. However, she plans to cheer the runners on and make sure they have their best time ever.

Next year, COA plans to add more events, including table tennis, archery, track and field, volleyball, square dancing and bridge. “Our goal is to offer 30 events and have 10,000 senior athletes participate,” says McBride. “And we’d love to [reach that goal] in three years.”

In the future, COA hopes to connect people with teams and opportunities on its website. “We want this to be a year-round activity,” says McBride.

McBride was inspired by the story of a group of women at the Huntsman World Games who took up the game of basketball in their seventies and compete in three-on-three basketball. “It’s amazing enough that they took the game up in their seventies, but they practice every Sunday at the YMCA in Anaheim, so they’re ready for the games and they travel to compete.”

Meet the athletes

The Council on Aging in Sonoma County expects hundreds of people age 50-plus to compete at this year’s event. When asked the question: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are? These athletes felt years younger than their chronological age. Following are some of the athletes who will be competing in the senior games.

Eugene Gianoli, bocce ball. Eugene “Geno” Gianoli, of Cloverdale, has always been active, but didn’t take up bocce ball until 10 years ago. He plays in a spring and summer league, Brutacao Cellars, which begins in May and ends in October. Geno plans to compete with his team at the bocce ball event.

Gianoli is 79 years old, but says he feels about 50. He played baseball and basketball all through high school as well as during a four-year stint in the Air Force and while attending Long Beach City College.

What’s his secret to aging healthfully? “Being active is key,” says Gianoli. Other than bocce ball, his hobbies include hunting, fishing and cooking. Gianoli is also active with the Kiwanis Club and the Knights of Columbus in Cloverdale, delivers meals for the COA’s Meals on Wheels program and is a docent at the Cloverdale Historical Society.

Dick Lewis, swimming. Santa Rosan Dick Lewis, now 81, learned to swim in the Eel River in Humboldt County when he was five years old. Lewis swam competitively in high school and in college at UC Berkeley where he also played water polo. Today, he trains at the Airport Club in Santa Rosa four times a week and weight trains twice a week.

A master swimmer, Lewis has been competing in pool events since 1972. “When I started master swimming in my forties, I swam 500 yards and thought it was great. Now I’m swimming 3,000 yards, four days a week.”

How old does Lewis feel these days? “I took the Real Age test [online], and I came up in my late sixties,” says Lewis. “Right now, I’m delighted to be alive.” Lewis nearly died in September from complications after heart valve replacement surgery. It took him about three months to recover from surgery, but he couldn’t wait to get back in the pool. “A doctor told my wife I have the heart of a 30 year old,” he says. “Swimming saved my life, and I’m not giving it up.”

To maintain his health, Lewis believes in eating a proper diet, including a lot of fruits and vegetables, regular exercise and, he says, “I never smoked.”

Jeanie Olson, tennis. Jeanie Olson of Santa Rosa is 58 years old, but says she feels about 33 because of her active lifestyle. She began playing tennis as a kid after going to the public courts and watching her parents hit the ball. She attended her first professional tennis tournament when she was 19 years old and realized then that she’d never be a professional player. Nevertheless, she started recreational playing tennis competitively in her thirties and got involved in leagues. Primarily self-taught, it wasn’t until she was in her forties that she took her first formal tennis lesson. Today, she competes in a local tennis league and the United States Tennis Association (USTA) for people age 50-plus. Her level is 4.5, which is the highest level of play for a recreational senior tennis player.

“Life doesn’t stop at 40,” says Olson. “And it doesn’t matter when you pick up the racquet, put on the swimming suit or get on that bike. Sports keep you physically active and mentally healthy. No matter what’s happening in my life, I can get on the court, hit the ball and run the lines. I play with people from all walks of life, and our tennis is our common denominator. Life is good.”

Teri Simpson, soccer. Teri Simpson of Santa Rosa began playing soccer at age 51 and has been competing ever since. She plays on six indoor teams and three outdoor, traveling teams. In addition, she plays on the Sonoma County Women’s Soccer League and competed in the World Masters Games in Canada and Australia. “Never feel you're too old to try. I began at 51, but many people don’t start until their sixties.”

Today, Simpson is 63 years old and says she feels as if she’s in the best shape of her life. “Age has not been a big thing for me,” says Simpson. “I don’t think about it.”

What’s her advice for aging healthfully? “Try new things, keep active and don’t limit yourself because you’ve turned a certain age.” Simpson also makes it a point to eat healthy foods. “It’s input versus output,” she says. “I don’t limit myself. When I indulge, I eat pasta.”

Simpson is the commissioner of soccer for the senior games and will also be a competitor.

Rich Tunheim, basketball. Rich Tunheim of Santa Rosa will be competing in the basketball event at the senior games. He started playing the game when he was 10 years old. Tunheim is 60 years old, but he feels years younger. “I don’t feel any different than I did 20 years ago,” he says. Tunheim played on two teams at the World Senior Games in Sydney, Australia. He currently plays for Murphy’s Irish Pub in the Jack Benny (39+) league in Sonoma and plans to play with his son this summer in a 25+ league at the Sonoma Boys and Girls Club.

Tunheim credits exercise, a sense of humor and moderation in his diet as the key to staying healthy and fit. “Basketball gives me the opportunity to play with my son, who just turned 30,” he says. “Last time I had a physical, the doctor asked me how long I was going to keep going. I told him I have to keep going. There’s always another opportunity to play with my son.”

He’s looking forward to competing in the senior games in Sonoma County. “I hope it [the senior games] brings to light that age is just a number. You can be active, and the more active you are, the more you keep age at bay.”

Tunheim’s wife, Maureen, will also be competing at the senior games in the soccer event.

Arthur “Art” Webb, running. Arthur “Art” Webb of Santa Rosa started running in his thirties and hasn’t stopped since. Today, at age 69, he's an ultra running athlete who competes in long distance races. He's run in many marathons (26.2 miles) and dozens of 50- and 100-mile plus races. “I started running when I was 35 years old. It kept me in good physical shape and helped me mentally let loose of all my frustrations,” says Webb. “Running is just a healthy thing to do. It keeps you young, vibrant, energetic and positive.”

Race director for the Santa Rosa Marathon, Webb plans to compete in the 10k race at the senior games. He's completed the 135-mile Badwater Ultra-Marathon 13 official times. The footrace across Death Valley in 130-degree heat and 200-degree pavement temperatures crosses two mountain ranges and finishes halfway up Mt. Whitney. It’s considered the toughest and most difficult running event in the world.

Though Webb is 69 years old, he says he feels about 50. “I never, never let age get in my way,” he says. “Commit and finish. That’s what I’m all about.”

How to register

The registration fee is $39 per person, plus a small fee for each sport. There will be an opening ceremony on Friday, June 3, at the Flamingo Resort Hotel. Volunteers are needed and can sign up at

Admission to all sporting events is free and open to the public. Schedules may be subject to change. Check the website for updates.

COA is a senior service agency that has served Sonoma County since 1966. It provides services that ensure quality of life and promote well-being so seniors can maintain independence.



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