Older adults competed in Durham County Senior Games and SilverArts for the chance to advance to the state and national games
By Renee Ambroso and Amanda MacLaren| Photography by John Michael Simpson
The Durham Senior Games and Silver Arts, which is coordinated by Durham Parks & Recreation and sponsored by the Durham Arts Council, Durham Center for Senior Life and NC Cooperative Extension, took place from April 26-May 18. Participants 50 years and older competed in events including heritage and visual arts, basketball shooting, badminton, pickle ball and more. A total of 54 entrants in this year’s games and SilverArts qualified for the statewide games, which are slated to begin on Sept. 9.
Yvette Matthews, 67, who moved to Carolina Arbors from Parker, Colorado, in 2016, is no stranger to fierce competition. She played basketball and lacrosse as a student at the University of Maryland and went on to compete as a semi-pro volleyball player. She now participates in myriad sports in the 65-69 age bracket at the Senior Games, including badminton, shuffleboard, track and field, basketball, pingpong, horseshoes, softball throwing and croquet.
Yvette was diagnosed with the rare liver disease primary sclerosing cholangitis in 2001 and received a liver transplant in 2014. She competed in a 5K, cycling race, and track and field events in the Transplant Games of America that same year and went on to compete in two World Transplant Games, bringing home several more medals and breaking two world records.
Yvette enjoys the camaraderie among participants in the games just as much as the chance to compete. She took part in the National Senior Games in 2019 in long jump and power-walking and considered adding volleyball to her list next year. Yvette earned gold in several categories this year, including the football throw, bocce and badminton singles.
“I can still do a split and a half of a cartwheel,” says Louise Gooche, who retired in 2000 as the chairperson of Durham Technical Community College’s nursing program. That same year, she began volunteering at the Downtown Durham YMCA, discovered the Durham County Senior Games and SilverArts and became a representative for the YMCA at the Olympic-style event. When she learned that DSGSA failed to meet requirements of the North Carolina Senior Games that year, she became a champion for its revitalization, leading an ambassador program to spread the word and raise involvement. Louise was then invited to become a board member for the state’s senior games.
“As we mature, we have to keep our minds and bodies active,” she says, adding that North Carolina has the largest Senior Games program in the United States, with more than 60,000 older adults from the state taking part each year.
Louise founded the Durham Senior Divas, a cheerleading squad, in 2002. The Divas won gold for their routines at the state and national games for several years, and their flashy pompoms and peppy cheers continue to bring a burst of energy to every event they attend.
“If I’m out here trying to encourage people to maintain their mobility and their healthy lifestyle, they need to see me,” Louise says. Though cheerleading wasn’t offered at this year’s games due to the pandemic, she still showed up with a bright smile to cheer on other athletes, as she does every year.
Only 65 older adults were able to compete in the 2021 Games, but Louise hopes a much larger number can safely rejoin the competition soon. “I really miss being out there and performing. … This year has put a lot of stress on people – especially seniors,” Louise says. She implores other older adults to get vaccinated, keep active and stay social to maintain their health, mobility and well-being.
Alexander McCall, 67, plays just about every sport offered in the 65-69 age bracket, including tennis, pickleball, horseshoes, bocce and baseball throws. He has competed in the Senior Games for close to 10 years, a tribute to his enduring enthusiasm for sports.
“I played all the sports in high school and college,” he says. Alexander graduated from Somerset Community College in 1975 and subsequently joined the Army, but returned to Durham and attended Durham Tech, where he played basketball, and North Carolina Central University, where he played tennis.
Alexander isn’t laser focused on winning, though he has some “200 to 300 medals,” he says, and placed first in seven out of the 10 competitions he entered in 2021. “The ability to be healthy enough to participate … that’s the main thing,” he says. “Just come out and enjoy it.”
Cindy Covington lives near Duke Forest and has played basketball at the Senior Games in the 55-60 age bracket for the past four years. She prefers 3-on-3 hoops but isn’t averse to a game of pickleball, which she recently picked up. Most days of the week, she can be found exercising at Club Pilates in Chapel Hill. “Having a strong core helps you in everything,” Cindy, 55, says.
Cindy called the Senior Games a “humbling experience” when she faced a more experienced opponent in a game of pickleball – though still fun. She advises others looking to keep fit to “find something that you like to do,” so exercise becomes something to enjoy rather than a chore. Cindy placed second in pickleball singles during this spring’s competition.
Pickleball player Staci Green, 56, has played the sport for five years. She’s been a tennis player for much longer and picked up pickleball because it was “another racquet sport to try that was new.” Staci, who’s always been active, also enjoys yoga, running, cross-training, hiking and biking, and she often works out at Planet Fitness. Staci competed in the 55-59 age bracket and usually enters in the mixed doubles category, but this year she tried her hand at the singles game for the first time, earning gold.
Christopher Mapley-Brittle, 75, competed in the football and softball throws at Campus Hills Park. Christopher, who grew up in England, now lives in Grove Park and has been a Durham County resident for almost two decades. He has competed in nearly every activity at the Senior Games aside from swimming – “drowning, I’d probably get first place,” he jokes. He also plays pingpong year-round.
Christopher applauds the dedication of organizers and volunteers who devote their time to the games. “I do appreciate how hard the staff work to set it up every year,” he says. “They must be having fun.” He’s been greeted by some of the same faces for the past 10 years. “They recognize me when I walk up,” Christopher says.
Most years, Christopher performs spoken-word gospel songs during the art- and performance- focused SilverArts categories of the Senior Games. “It’d be a crime for me to try to sing them, so I recite the words,” he says. Performances were omitted from SilverArts this spring; activities were condensed and limited to visual arts, including sculpture, quilting and drawing.
Fledra Hatch, 97, has lived in Chapel Hill and Durham for more than 50 years. She moved here with her husband, John Hatch, and their three children – “little Hatch’s,” she calls them – so John could pursue his Ph.D.
In 2017, Fledra’s daughter Leah Hatch secretly registered Fledra for track and field events. “I [told her], ‘You have one week to practice, you’re in the games,’ and she was nervous,” Leah says. But Fledra did well and continues to compete every year, now in the 95-99 age group. She placed second in the 50-meter dash during the 2019 National Senior Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Fledra says that her children and friends see her example and draw inspiration to keep running and exercising. “Start early and keep at it,” Fledra says. She likes to hone her speed-walking skills at the Duke Center for Living Campus. Leah will join her mother at the Senior Games next year, also competing in track and field.
Parks and trails are at the center of many experiences and memories, and have been essential to residents who utilized these green spaces to provide some much-needed relief – mentally, physically and emotionally – over the past year.
July is National Park and Recreation month, and the theme this year is, “Our Park and Recreation Story.” To commemorate the occasion, Durham Parks & Recreation is asking residents to tell their park and recreation story in 100 words or fewer. Share how you used the parks and trails and discuss how beneficial they were to you during the pandemic. Some of the stories will be featured on DPR’s social media pages and blog.
Email your story along with a photo to [email protected] by July 2. Include “My DPR Story” in the subject line.