Maryland Senior Olympics promote healthy lifestyle and camaraderie

Oct. 26—

When Barbara Scheffter, 69, saw 90-year-old women dive off a diving board at Stanford University during the National Senior Games in 2007, Scheffter knew she would be competing in state and national senior olympics for a long time.

"That's when I got hooked. I watched that, and thought, 'Wow, that could be me,'" she said.

Scheffter has competed in the Maryland Senior Olympics since 2006 and in the National Senior Games since 2007. She's competed in various events, such as the 50 meter and 500 meter freestyle and backstroke.

Maryland Senior Olympics, which is a nonprofit, provides competition for people 50 and older. Participants can compete in team sports like volleyball and basketball, as well as individual sports, like track events and archery.

Most recently, the organization added pickleball.

Scheffter was petrified at her first Maryland Senior Olympics. Her friend got her roped into competing, she said, and she remembered how crazy she thought her friend was. But the next year at National Senior Games at Stanford sealed the deal.

For Scheffter, the Maryland Senior Olympics and National Senior Games are just competitive enough to push herself and consistently train to be better.

But it offers more than that, she said.

"It's also become an opportunity to travel, or an excuse to travel. And then it's just a great opportunity to make friends from different states that you get see and to meet every two years," Scheffter said.

For 55-year-old Melinda McWilliams, fitness, friends and a good dose of competition were also why she joined.

McWilliams' face was determined as she pumped her arms, her purple sneakers a blur as she power-walked around her neighborhood recently. She placed first in both the 1,500-meter and 5,000- meter powerwalk at this year's Maryland Senior Olympics in August, which qualified her for the National Senior Games.

"I've just always been a fast walker. But now I've actually started training," she said. "So I'm getting faster and stronger."

Her medals were quintessentially Maryland: the lanyard with a Maryland flag pattern and the medal depicting a red crab holding a torch.

She does a loop around her neighborhood in Ballenger Creek, which is four-tenths of a mile. She walks the loop nearly eight times to make the walk a little over three miles.

Much like Scheffter, McWilliams wanted to compete in the Olympics after she read a New York Times article in May about 90-year-old runners at the National Senior Games. She signed up for the Maryland Senior Olympics three days later.

For fun, she also signed up for the 50-meter sprint, where she placed fourth.

And she's not limiting herself to just running and walking. She and her partner, Jack Stere, 56, competed in corn-hole in mid-October.

Most events allow only the top four people in each age group to go on to compete in national games, according to the National Senior Games Association's website.

"We've always played but then she wanted to do it for the Olympics," Stere said.

Stere will also be competing in running events at the next Maryland Senior Olympics in 2024, McWilliams said.

"He ran track in high school, so he said that if I qualified for Nationals, we could train together and he'll run track in the 100-meter in the 2024 Maryland Olympics," she said.

McWilliams would love to see more people in Frederick County competing in the Maryland Senior Olympics. Not only are the games fun and competitive, she said, but the environment is welcoming. People always cheer and encourage each other, she said. The purpose of the olympics is to get active, and a friendly competition helps spur that.

"The Maryland Senior Olympics motto is 'to participate is to win,' and I kind of feel like that's true, because you're out there being active," McWilliams said.

John Abbott, 72, agreed. Abbott has competed in the Maryland Senior Olympics off and on for 20 years, he said. While Abbott likes the idea of being able to stay active as he gets older, he competes simply for his love of swimming.

"It's not that I swim to compete; I swim because I like to swim," he said.

Motivation differs from person to person, he said. Some people are motivated by the medals. Others want to try to improve or maintain their times. Others love the camaraderie the events bring. Everyone is supportive, he said.

"I always made a point, and a lot of other other people did, that when somebody was in their 80s and 90s and swam their event, at the end of their event, we would cheer them and clap like crazy," he said.

Follow Clara Niel on Twitter: @clarasniel

Follow Clara Niel on Twitter: @clarasniel