Retirement was the beginning of a new and thoroughly delightful life for Jackson Wells.
The Park City resident celebrated by tackling head-on challenges he had previously found appealing but too time-consuming to accomplish.The 68-year-old is one of more than 1,500 "seniors" (those 50 and above) in St. George for the third Huntsman Chemical's World Senior Games. Participants have come from all over the United States, Canada, Mexico and one from Taiwan to compete in basketball, golf, tennis, softball, swimming, bowling, cycling, horseshoes, road races and track and field events. Some will compete in more than one category before the games conclude Oct. 27.
Mark Rifkin, 68, and Chuck Gibson, 67, have come from Carlsbad, Calif., to compete in the tennis portion of the games. Rifkin and Wells drew each other as partners and will face off against Gibson's team in the first round.
"Lucky us," Rifkin laughed. "Chuck is the No. 1 seed in doubles."
Gibson has a number of tennis championships to his credit and is, in fact, a retired tennis coach and political science professor.
The games, they agree, are an example of a trend that is growing - and here to stay. Thousands of retirees with the time and money to pursue their athletic interests travel all over the country competing in tournaments. Besides satisfying a lust for travel, they make hundreds of new friends and improve their health through exercise.
Rifkin and Gibbons belong to a group of about 50 senior citizens, age 55-70, who play "good social doubles tennis" three times a week. It started with a handful who were taking lessons and agreed they could be playing, instead. It grew and Gibbons said they now "get together for social outings and provide the nucleus of a real support group."
"By staying active and living now, we're much healthier and happier," Wells said.
The players have a wide age range. Marvin Kirschbaum of Paso Robles, Calif., who played two rounds of tennis Tuesday morning, is 82.
Wells teaches older people to ski during the winter and said athletics opens new doors. "You see people 80 years old who think they're too old to learn, and they change before your eyes. By the end of the first day, they want to know when they start tomorrow. And the idea belongs to them."
Those who have been athletes all their lives admit that things change with age.
"We do more touch shots," Gibbon said. "More control and not so much power. And the court seems to have gotten larger. It takes longer to get into the corners. But the best thing, I think, is that we are hopefully more sportsmanlike."
Teams playing basketball in St. George prove the same thing.
Irma Hailes and Elon Widdison sat on the sidelines cheering for their husbands, Donald and Arch. The Bountiful-based group "threw together a team and recruited a couple of `walk-ons' - players they met during registration," said Elon Widdison. They play together for fun and exercise.
"Don's lost weight and has more energy," his wife said. "He hasn't always played ball, but he's always been active. And we're here to root them on."
While the players admit they're competitive - "We all want to do the best we can," said basketball player Gerry Belko of Illinois - staying healthy and making new friends is the glue that holds competitions like this one for senior citizens together.
One player hurt his heel playing tennis and announced that he'd just sign up for the swimming events instead.
"It's part of being a complete, happy person," Wells said. "If something goes wrong with my body, I've got a guitar waiting. It's all part of aging and enjoying life at the same time. That spirit gives you the sense of wanting to use that time."
Senior citizens are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. And people are starting to recognize that expectations of aging that include ill health, inactivity and loneliness do not provide an accurate picture of "the elderly" as a group. Only a tiny percentage will have to leave their homes in the community during their lifetimes; the vast majority will remain healthy and independent.
People are learning that, in Wells' words, "It's never too late. We have the freedom to try new things and even the freedom to fail. And most people don't want to look foolish, but if they're encouraged a bit, they're more active.
"Growing old can provide a freedom you just don't have time for when you're younger," he said. "Freedom to do the things you never had time for."