National Senior Games 2013


Today is a travel day coming home from the Senior Games, and I’ve spent some time on the flight home summarizing our week in Cleveland, to share a few final thoughts on the experience. It was been inspirational to see so many seniors in top shape, and great for me personally to finally see my uncle Don Phillips competing.

National Senior Games 2013 - Don Phillips, 83, South Dakota

I posted some of my favorite photos to Facebook during the week. Here are public (i.e., available to anyone, regardless of whether you’re on Facebook) links to the four albums I posted:

  • Wednesday 7/24 – 800 meter qualifying event, long jump qualifying and finals
  • Thursday 7/25 (morning) – we were there for the 400 meter qualifier, but since only 8 contestants showed up they cancelled that event and all would be in the final
  • Thursday 7/25 (afternoon) – 800 meter final (Don wins silver medal)
  • Friday 7/26 – 1500 meter final, 400 meter final (Don wins silver medal), 4×100 relay (the relay was 70-74 age group, all other events Don competed in were 80-84 age group)

And here’s a slideshow of Don and other participants in the long jump:

Don took up running at age 57, much later in life than most of the athletes I met this week at the games. But he approaches it with quiet disciplined determination, and soon found himself competing at a high level in senior events. You can find a summary of his running experience in an article published two years ago by KDLT News, “Against the Wind: 81-Year Old Runner Don Phillips.”

The final tally for Don this year: two silver medals in the 800 meter and 400 meter, ribbons (for top-8 finish) in the 1500 meter and 4×100 relay, and he qualified for the final in the long jump (a first for him).

Two years ago I snapped this photo in Don’s basement of just some of the awards he has won as a senior athlete (many others are stored away in boxes) …

awards Don has won as a senior runner

Mortality, and Raging Against

One of the things that makes senior athletic competition inspirational, even for people like myself who don’t pay much attention to sports, is the way that a fit senior athlete is the living embodiment of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s famous line “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Those who push themselves to amazing levels despite the aches and pains and deteriorations of age remind us that we do have control of how much living we pack into our allotted years.

My mother has attended two Senior Games to watch Don compete, in 1999 and this year in 2013. Both times, the games came after the loss of a family member.

Mom at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport

In 1999, my grandmother Effie Phillips (mother to Mom and Don) died at age 95. She passed away at 2:00AM on the day that Mom was to fly to the Senior Games in Orlando, and Mom knew she would have wanted the family together, so Mom got on a 6:00AM flight to Orlando that same day to join her younger brother Jim and his wife Carol in cheering Don on to his first Senior Games medal, a bronze in the 800 meters. (And Don’s wife Laverla was there as well, of course – Laverla is always there for Don.)

Then this spring, my youngest brother Brad died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 49. He was planning to be here with us this week in Cleveland, and he and Mom were going to do some sightseeing on the East Coast afterward. Instead, only Mom and I were here from our family. That made the experience a little more emotional for us, of course.

Several of Don’s grandkids were here, and it was nice to see the youngest generation showing their support. As one of numerous examples from this week, after Don fell hard in the 1500 meter on Friday, the family was watching as he walked around the infield of the track, rubbing his leg.  11 year-old Kira, the youngest grandchild present, ran down to the roped-off stairs at the bottom of the bleachers, slipped under the yellow tape, and ran across the track to give Grandpa a big hug. Two hours later, Don won a silver in the 400 meters, running with a sore hamstring and scuffed knees.

Don and Kira on Wednesday …

Don & Kira

Senior Seniors

Some of the most inspirational performances this week were from the over-85 crowd.

For example, the woman’s 85-89 long jump:National Senior Games 2013 - women's 85-89 long jump

That woman in the lower left deserves special mention. She had obvious pain in her right hip, and would hobble up to the starting block while pressing her palm against that hip, then lurch forward as far as she could. It hurt to watch, but was inspiring, too.

And the woman at top center, Agnes in light blue, seemed to be everywhere the last few days. I saw her in multiple running events in addition to the long jump, and she was always pushing herself with great determination, smiling at every finish line. Here she is receiving a bronze medal in the 800 meters for women age 85-89:

Women's 800 meter final, age 85-89

Here’s 100-year old John Zilverberg of South Dakota, accepting his gold medal for the javelin in the 100-and-over bracket:

National Senior Games 2013 - John Zilverberg, 100, South Dakota

He was unopposed in that event, but also had a close competition in the shotput, where he earned a silver medal – another 100-year old beat him there.

Here’s 94-year old Mary, who ran unopposed in her age group for the 800 meters:


She took two slow steady laps, and it had the feel of a victory lap the whole way, with the crowd cheering whenever she passed.

A similar story was the 94-year old woman who ran unopposed in the 1500 meters, earning a gold medal for showing up and finishing:


Cheering Familes. Or Not.

A typical photo of Don’s family cheering from the bleachers …

Phillips family

The only thing that felt sad in this otherwise uplifting week was the awareness that some of the contestants didn’t have supportive families or friends cheering them on. I met two people who were competing there alone. And I heard the story of a contestant who travels to these events and sleeps outdoors in a sleeping bag, alone and unable to afford even a hotel room. I suppose there are others in the same boat, which makes their achievements all the more impressive to me: truly self-motivated individuals.

There were a dozen of us there to cheer for Don this year, including his wife Laverla, his three daughters, four of his grandkids, son-in-law Dan, his sister LaVonne (my Mom), son-in-law Dan, and me (nephew) …Phillips family

Timing is Everything

The Senior Games organizes all competition into 5-year age brackets: 65-69, 70-74, 75-79, 80-84, and so on.

Don turned 83 this year, so he was competing as one of the older members of the 80-84 age bracket. In both of his silver-medal performances, he came in 2nd behind an 80-year old. And the relay race he ran in was an age 70-74 event, where one of the teams asked him to join them. (Athletes are free to compete in a younger age bracket, but not in an older one, of course.)

In two years, the Senior Games 2015 will take place in Minneapolis, and Don will be 85 years old that year. So instead of being one of the older men in his bracket competing against younger men, he’ll be one of the youngest in the 85-89 age bracket.

As he said to me yesterday, “the key for us guys is to just age a little slower than everyone else.” As disciplined and focused as Don is, I’m expecting him to do exactly that, and be in shape for a great run at the gold in 2015. I’m looking forward to it already.

Don in the 800 meter final, on the way to a silver medal



  1. I absolutely loved following along with this on Facebook,; what an inspiration these seniors and senior seniors are. I am really looking forward to 2015. My only disappointment was I didn’t see any national media exposure on this which is why I’m guessing main stream media is becoming less relevant while social media surges ahead.

  2. Lisa (Phillips) Witczek on

    I am the youngest daughter of Don and have seen him compete twice. In Texas in 2011 and Ohio in 2013. I am so very Proud of my Dad. He is an Inspiration to many. I am Thankful to have been there for him and to share his Great Accomplishments. We have such a close and supportive family and that means a lot. Thank you Doug for being there to capture such a Wonderful event!

  3. It was my pleasure, Lisa. Your father has been a role model and inspiration to me since long before he took up running, going back to summer trips to the Dakotas as a young boy and teenager. I loved going with him on his rounds (as a large-animal vet), and admired his unflappable steadiness and the way animals all seemed to respond to him with trust and respect and affection. He is a wonderful combination of tough-as-dirt and a playful twinkle in his eye. See you in Minneapolis for the 2015 games, if not before!

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