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Senior athletes meet their match at regional sporting competition

Annual event shows the benefits of an active, competitive lifestyle

Monica Williams, center, plays a round of pickleball against Kathy Danaher at the Mitchell Park courts in Palo Alto. Williams is will compete in the 2018 Bay Area Senior Games. Photo by Veronica Weber.

For 64-year-old water polo player Leslie Platshon, finding other teams in her age group to compete against is a rare opportunity that only comes around twice a year — the USA Water Polo Masters' Nationals and the upcoming Bay Area Senior Games held across Santa Clara, San Mateo and Alameda counties.

Platshon, who lives in Menlo Park, decided to take up the sport after decades of watching her three sons play water polo. Eleven years ago, she formed the Menlo Mavens, which currently practices twice a week at Menlo Park's Burgess pool.

"We were mostly older women and most of us had watched our kids but never had the opportunity to play," Platshon recalled. Over the years, the team has added younger members, including women in their 20s who played Division I water polo in college.

"I think I'm the oldest now," said Platshon "We have a core group of the older women still with it, but we've added a lot of young people. The tricky thing is to find other teams (in the older age groups)."

Platshon is among the 1,750 athletes ages 50 and over expected to compete at this year's 12th Annual Senior Games coming up April 14 through May 27.

The games, first held in 2006 as test events for the 2009 Summer National Senior Games, draw experienced senior athletes as well as novices. This year's event will feature 18 competitions in various sports, including five that will be held in Palo Alto — lawn bowling, pickleball, soccer, swimming and volleyball.

The goal of the senior games is to show the benefits of an active, competitive lifestyle, said organizer Anne Warner Cribbs, a longtime Palo Alto resident and a 1960 Olympic gold medalist swimmer, who has organized the Bay Area senior games — including the 2009 Summer National Senior Games — for more than a decade.

"The one thing about senior athletes is their enthusiasm, and zest and camaraderie," she said. "It's invigorating and also inspirational. Some people have lost a spouse, or have had a medical issue where it was necessary for them to get back in shape. And they come out, so it's good."

Cribbs herself is back to swimming again after shoulder-replacement surgery a little more than a year ago.

"Now I just swim for the exercise and the zen of it," she said.

Redwood City athlete Dorothy McCartney also is participating in this year's games. She plans to compete in power walking even though she only discovered the sport three months ago. Sidelined by a serious car accident in 2011, the longtime runner, hiker and tennis player heard about power walking through a friend.

"I'm still an athlete, just trying to figure out what I can do," McCartney said. "I'll go for anything that keeps me moving, and I love something new, too." Because of the metal in her leg, McCartney said power walking — in which one foot is always on the ground — is less pounding than running, and "I can still go fast."

Among the youngest and newest athletes competing this year will be 50-year-old swimmer Bret McMillan of Mountain View, who said that until two years ago he was not athletic at all.

"I was doing nothing — I wasn't swimming, I wasn't working out, I wasn't doing anything," McMillan said. "I was wanting to get healthier and more active but I hadn't done anything in years. I'd joined gyms before, but always quit."

In February 2016 McMillan joined another gym, finally making it stick by adding a personal trainer.

"This time it worked and by March, I wasn't just lifting weights but I also was swimming in their pool," he said.

A friend's mention of the upcoming Escape from Alcatraz annual swim planted a seed, and McMillan set out to practice open-water swimming with a rented wetsuit in Santa Cruz.

"It was cold and it scared me to death. I swam to the buoy and back and it wasn't that far but it seemed like forever. But I was hooked and it was exhilarating," he said.

McMillan completed the 1.5-mile swim that following August and two more open-water swims later that year. In 2017, he competed in eight open-water swims and four pool-based swim meets. In 2018, he's signed up for 18 swims, 12 of them in open water.

"What I was shooting for was really to get healthier," he said. Now, McMillan swims four days a week and works out in the gym the other three.

Menlo Park resident Brooks Esser, who has competed in multiple sports — track and field, road racing, triathlon, golf and cycling — is now on the board of the California Senior Games, which oversees all Senior Games competitions conducted in California. Currently, he said, about 8,000 athletes participate in eight regional senior game competitions throughout California, from the Napa wine country and the Bay Area down to Pasadena and San Diego.

"We're looking to expand the sponsorship and work with local governments to grow the games," Esser said.

In recent years, participation in the pickleball competition, which will be held at Mitchell Park May 5-6, has seen among the biggest jumps at the Senior Games. At last year's competition held in Palo Alto, 147 pickleball players competed, and that number is expected to grow to 160 or 175 this year, said coordinator Tom Foldare.

"This year there are 2.8 million pickleball players in the United States, up 18 percent over last year, so it's really in big growth," Foldare said.

Online registration for the 2018 Bay Area Senior Games is now open for all sports. Find out more about how to compete or volunteer at the games at 650-323-9400 or bayareaseniorgames.org.

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