Athletes fill gap after Senior Games canceled

Jennifer Croughwell, of the Village of Pennecamp and a member of VAST, competes in the 200-yard breast stroke event during the final day of swimming competition.

For many of The Villages’ high-level senior athletes, the goal for training isn’t just to maintain an active lifestyle. It’s to compete. And when The Villages Senior Games, the community’s largest and most popular competitive sports event, was officially canceled this spring for the second consecutive year due to COVID-19, it left a hole in the competitive sports schedule of area athletes. This left athletes, clubs and groups in The Villages craving competition, and they filled that void the only way they knew how: by creating their own competitive events. “This was our one chance to have a tournament to get everyone involved and have practice and be enthusiastic about it,” said Sandy Crook, who helped organize a water volleyball tournament that wrapped up this week. “This gives people some of the same buzz that the Senior Games does.”

Water volleyball was far from the only sport to create its own event. Pickleball, archery and swimming groups in The Villages all also scheduled specific competitions to fill the void left by the cancellation of the Senior Games, which Lisa Parkyn, The Villages Senior Games coordinator with The Villages Recreation and Parks Department, said was due primarily to the logistical challenges of working on a tighter schedule to put on the official event.

Back in the Pool

For area water volleyball players, the last time they took to the pool for a competitive tournament in The Villages was October 2020.

Crook, of the Village of Poinciana, said there are more than 1,000 water volleyball players in The Villages, so when the official Senior Games event got erased this spring, many were itching to get back in the pool.

Crook employed the help of Bob McCormick and Tom Gourlay to put on a tournament themselves, originally set for April 18. A storm system rolling through interrupted play that day, but the group was able to wrap up the event this past Sunday.

“The competition was good and the nice thing about it was, everybody we played with and competed against, we’re all friends,” said Phil Brown, of the Village of Pinellas, who captained the winning team. “And we all had a great time together.”

Staying in the pool, The Villages Aquatic Swim Team also could not let April go by without scratching the competitive itch. The last time VAST swimmers had competed in a meet in The Villages was August.

So, on April 22, VAST began a four-day virtual meet, signaling a competitive return to the pool.

After the Senior Games cancellation, VAST head coach Bob Jennings, of the Village of Winifred, wanted to make sure the team had some sort of competition planned to stay sharp. The four-day meet at Mulberry Grove Regional Recreation Complex had only members of VAST competing live, but once finished, they could post their times online to compare with other swimmers in a virtual meet.

Getting back to full-fledged competition for VAST was something Jennings relished, and he said this meet helps keep the team prepared for later competitions when they return.

“[It felt] very good and it’s needed,” Jennings said. “Because looking toward the Rowdy Gaines meet in October, the state Senior Games in December and then next May, the nationals. The more you swim in competition, the better off you do because you get rid of the quirks.”

Keeping Competition Going

While water volleyball and swimming held their specific competitions after monthslong droughts, archery and pickleball groups already were competing but had to replace Senior Games events on their regular schedules.

The Villages Archery Club has been back holding monthly competitions since January. And when the April slot opened up without the Senior Games, the club scheduled its own tournament for April 17. The club planned a tournament different from the traditional 900-round Senior Games event. The club was going to shoot at full-body animal silhouettes with staggered yardage from the archers.

Archery Club president Rod Burge, of the Village of Bonita, said he knows that shooting during a tournament provides a whole different feeling than practice.

“The idea was to get our club members back involved in tournament-type activities,” Burge said, “so they could travel around to other clubs and participate in other events.”

Unfortunately for the club, the competition was rained out the morning of the event. But efforts are being made to keep the competitive spirit going in May.

The Pickleball Community Volunteer Group switched up their normal monthly tournament as well. Typically, the PCVG holds The Villages Championships as a doubles-only event during March to avoid conflicting with the Senior Games. This year, they spread the event over two months and added a singles competition for April.

“It’s a very popular tournament,” said PCVG tournament director Gordon Mikkelson. “I thought we can spread this out over two months and we can have more teams.”

Mikkelson, of the Village of St. Charles, and the PCVG took advantage of the extra time and held a singles tournament for the first time in the group’s history. With the championships happening over two months, each group got more shine than normal.

The clubs and teams did as much as they could to keep the competition alive and created new ways to compete than they had before. Parkyn said she enjoyed seeing the competition live on through residents’ own efforts.

“Our residents have such a positive ‘can-do’ spirit,” Parkyn said. “While the Recreation and Parks Department enjoys hosting the Senior Games, it’s also rewarding to know that the passion for competition is alive and well, and that residents will find ways to support their love of sport.”

Staff Writer Ryan Weiss can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5408, or ryan.weiss@thevillagesmedia.com.