Exceptional athletes go for gold at the Washington State Senior Games
BY MARK WOYTOWICH
Sprinters fly toward the 50-meter finish line as though shot from a cannon, legs kicking high. Their sudden burst of speed is a stunning and wondrous sight. Michael Waller of Federal Way, 64, claimed the second fastest time last year in the 50-meter dash at a blazing 6.93 seconds!
I take photos for the Washington State Senior Games (WSSG), the largest Olympic-style multi-sport event in the state for anyone 50 and older. There’s little doubt WSSG attracts the best senior athletes in the state. The top three winners—gold, silver, bronze—in every event qualify for the National Senior Games, held every other year. Up to 400 medals are awarded each year, yet the majority of the 2,000 or so athletes who attend won’t earn a medal.
“The Senior Games have always been about building connection and community for me,” says Dianne Foster, WSSG board president and track and field commissioner. “It may be seniors competing, but they have spouses, kids, and grandkids in the stands. I see it more as a family event.” Indeed, Foster has enlisted both her mother and sister as volunteers at track and field, one of the Senior Games largest and most well-attended events.
Doing the possible
“It just feels good to feel good,” says Fran Melzer, 82, a WSSG multi-medal winner and three-time national gold medal champion in women’s hammer throw, an extremely demanding event. “I was not an exceptional athlete in high school, other than gymnastics when I was younger. I stopped everything to be a mom and raise my kids and didn’t even try a sport until I was 57 or 58 and my kids were grown.”
Melzer has been a WSSG board member and volunteer since her mid-60s. “For me, this is about feeling joy, feeling physical,” she says. “It’s not about medals. I set goals but if I don’t reach them, it’s not the end of the world.”
Modest, soft-spoken Barbara Johnson of rural Elma, Wash., practically owns the gold medal in women’s 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter races. Some years she also runs the 10k road race and competes in as many as nine separate swimming events. At 74, her drawer is filled with so many medals it’s a challenge to open it each year to add more.
Yet, it’s the rhythms of family and simplicity that sustain Johnson’s legacy of champion performances. She’s active with church Bible studies and leads a local hiking group. She cooks, bakes, and reads to her two great-grandchildren in a quaint wooden farmhouse built in 1919. Her favorite exercise? Riding her bike on the backroads to a tiny lake, then swimming across it in the summer.
Hundreds of fellow athletes and spectators at Tumwater High School Stadium grew silent last year as Leonard Krause’s name echoed from the speakers. He had just secured his fourth gold medal in the men’s discus throw. Only moments before he had risen from his wheelchair, walked into the throwing box, coiled then unwound his torso, letting fly a 21-foot, 7-inch throw to a roar of applause.
Krause was 100 years old. He didn’t start competing until he was 80.
For supreme athletic ability, you don’t have to look any farther than the soccer fields of Lacey, Wash., in early August, where as many as 26 men’s and women’s teams from as far away as Texas and California battle for first place in the WSSG Soccer Tournament. I have never seen women of such unstoppable caliber move so fiercely as they run back and forth to make that winning goal. Sweat-soaked and grass-stained, their faces are flush pink when it’s finally over. Beaming, they share laughter and tears as they hug teammates and fallen foes equally, with a “long day, leaving it all on the field” mixture of exhaustion and intensity. “Best feeling in the world,” says a 62-year-old competitor from California, trotting off to claim a clean towel, bottle of cold water, and a gold medal for her flight home.
Some athletes get to set the world on fire—or at least their own towns or cities. The Port Townsend Drizzle was the first women’s team to compete in what was previously an all-male basketball tournament. For two years they were the only women’s team at WSSG and—because rules do not permit men versus women in any sport—they had to divide up and play themselves.
Frustrated, in 2017 the Drizzle team members made a “lonely hearts” personal ad video seeking the company of other women for basketball thrills. The ad worked and the next year, a newly formed women’s team joined from Olympia. A year after that, another began competing from Aberdeen, Wash.
Today, Drizzle team members are widely acknowledged for opening the WSSG basketball tournament to more inclusivity, as well as some raucous, good-natured humor.
Few athletes capture the WSSG spirit of acceptance and camaraderie as much as Chuck and Philip Milliman, the pole-vaulting father-son duo from Sequim, Wash. Chuck, who turns 90 in November, is a veteran marathon runner, has climbed all the major peaks in the Northwest, and runs his age every five years to raise money for nonprofits (at 80, it took 23 hours; 85 took a bit longer, 35 hours). Son Phil, 70, got them both started in pole vaulting. It helps, of course, to live next door to each other with a full-size vaulting pit installed in your backyard.
The Millimans share more than 100 gold, silver, and bronze medals between them, including more than a dozen National Senior Games gold medals in pole vaulting and the 4×100-meter relay—Chuck’s “action on the side,” as Phil refers to it.
What makes them exceptional athletes and the kind of people I aspire to be comes down not to accolades and awards, but to a very livable philosophy that extends outward from oneself to others. “I compete against myself,” Phil says. “That eliminates envy. When I get out there, I work to be the best I can be.”
Adds his dad, “I try to do that with everything, and with everyone I meet. Be at your best and you’ll bring out the best in others.”
Mark Woytowich is a writer, photographer, video producer and author of Where Waterfalls and Wild Things Are. He lives in Potlatch, Wash., with his wife, Linda. Reach him at his website, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Washington State Senior Games, now in its 26th year, take place every July through August throughout the greater Olympia area. Featuring more than two dozen different sports, including pickleball, bowling, tennis, golf, disc golf and volleyball. All events are open to anyone age 50 or older, with competitors grouped in ascending age brackets of five years (50-54, 55-59, etc.).