Florida Senior Games modifies its format

Nate Leech, of the Village of Winifred, works out in the Mulberry Grove sports pool. Leech, a decorated swimmer, plans to compete in this year’s Florida Senior Games.

In past years of the Florida Senior Games, multisport athletes might have found a challenge in juggling two events on the same day at locales 45 minutes apart. This December, some athletes could find their sports scheduled on opposite coasts. Out of respect for ongoing COVID-19 concerns, the 2020 Games have been relocated out of Fort Lauderdale, moving away from the traditional Olympic-style hub to its own socially distanced model as more than 20 sports are sprinkled across Florida’s midsection. From tennis in Palm Harbor and horseshoes in Clearwater to swimming in Cocoa Beach and bowling in Titusville, the Games now are spread Gulf-to-Atlantic across six Central Florida counties. “It’s great that they’re trying to do something,” said Peggy Peck, a Village of St. Charles resident who was 2019’s FSG Female Athlete of the Year. “If they’re spread out, they’re spread out. It’s just a different story these days. I expected that they had to do something.”

Dates remain the same, Dec. 5-13. The Games also will be held this year as an open competition, allowing anyone to enter without having previously qualified via his or her finish at one of nearly two dozen qualifying competitions.

The Villages Senior Games typically is one of those qualifiers, but it was not held in 2020 as activities were curtailed at the height of the shutdown.

Registration for most events can be found at floridaseniorgames.org. A few sports, though, have yet to lock in a new venue.

“All things considered, I think it’s a good idea,” said Bill Cason, of the Village of Pine Hills, who took third at last year’s National Senior Games in the 65-69 division of the men’s 800 meters. “I just wish the schedule was out for everything.”

Track and field happens to be the biggest missing piece right now. Clearwater was the athletics venue as recently as 2018, with Lakeland and Kissimmee other previous Central Florida sites.

“We’ve had no competition for so long, it’d be nice just to do a meet,” Cason said.

Race walking and the 5K road race also have not announced locales, while cycling was added just Monday. Softball conducted its Florida qualifier in Leesburg in August.

“It looks like they’ve found counties and cities that would approve places they can hold it,” said Nate Leech, a Village of Winifred resident who won six gold medals last December. “One good thing is it’s closer. You don’t have to drive those few extra hours.”

The Florida Sports Foundation, which coordinates the state games, did not respond to emailed questions by publication.

Fort Lauderdale was to be the Florida Senior Games site for a second consecutive year, offering one more dress rehearsal before welcoming the National Senior Games next November.

“I think we were all anxious to go to Fort Lauderdale this year to see the sites we’d be competing on at nationals,” said Avis Vaught, a four-sport Village of Belvedere athlete who has competed in four of the past five nationals.

“It was just going to be a bonus, to go and compete at the venue that the nationals would be at,” Cason said. “I don’t think it takes anything away, but it would be a little bit of a home-field advantage knowing the venues.”

South Florida has been the state’s most problematic COVID-19 hotspot since the virus began taking hold in the United States. Broward County, along with neighboring Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, have operated under tougher restrictions than the rest of Florida for most of the summer.

That proved worrisome for a sports festival built around athletes ages 50 and older. Last year, the Games attracted just over 2,000 athletes for nine days of competition.

To drive the point further, more than a dozen of the state’s 22 regional qualifiers were canceled over the spring, summer and early fall.

On Sept. 22, the Florida Sports Foundation announced the Games would feature an open format this year. Exiting Fort Lauderdale was a quieter operation, as registration options began to be posted for various competitions across Central Florida.

“I think more people would attend if it’s Central (Florida),” said Bonnie Dorr, women’s 800 meters 2019 silver medalist in the 55-59 division. “Several people on the track mentioned it had pretty low attendance last year. People were asking, ‘Where are all the Villagers?’”

Peck, who won eight gold and two silver medals on the track last year while also competing for The Villages Seabreeze basketball team, said she was “kind of glad they’re moving it.”

“I don’t think my husband would have let me go,” she said.

Peck’s husband, Larry, has health concerns she needs to be mindful of. She hopes to compete in track, though she’s been hampered by foot problems all year, but expects to sit out basketball.

Vaught is waiting to see how her schedule shapes up. Volleyball, where she captured two golds a year ago, is set for Dec. 5-6 in Wesley Chapel but she’s also among the many looking for track details.

“It’s going to be interesting to see if I’ll be able to do both this time,” Vaught said. “I’m trying.”

Vaught said she didn’t want to think about what she would do if conflict forced her to pick one over the other.

“If they’re on separate days, I don’t have a problem,” she continued. “From where we’re sitting (in The Villages), it’s an hour and a half drive in either direction. There’s no hotel, which is nice.”

Because athletes will need to maintain their distance, she added, celebrations this year might feel muted.

“When I cross the finish line,” Vaught said, “I won’t give my competitors a hug or a high-five. That’s one thing in particular the Senior Games will miss. ... You’ll see more people with their own chairs, their own coolers and kind of sitting away from groups.”

Likewise, with no central hub, the Games won’t have the same Olympic-type feeling of mixing with athletes from different sports.

“I think it will (diminish things) some,” said Cason, whose state Games portfolio includes competitions in South Carolina and Virginia. “I enjoy not just going and participating, but I go and watch athletes I know in other sports when I’m at the Games. That won’t be possible this time.”

First-timers and other less seasoned participants would be the ones to miss the social aspect most, Peck speculated.

“Maybe for someone who was going the first time, it’d be nice to have that opening ceremony,” she said. “For me it was a little old hat.”

Senior writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or jeff.shain@thevillagesmedia.com.