Villages athletes preparing for statewide stage

Bob Jennings swims the butterfly leg of the 400-yard individual medley during The Villages Aquatic Swim Team’s meet. Nineteen swimmers are registered for the Florida Senior Games, the third-largest group of Villagers entered.

There was a different vibe when the Villages Aquatic Swim Team got back in the pool after Thanksgiving. “We did some special sprints to get people in the mood,” said VAST head coach Bob Jennings.

When the calendar turns to December, the Florida Senior Games are just around the corner. And that hasn’t changed even amidst a Senior Games cycle that’s endured significant virus upheaval over the past 20 months.

The Games begin Saturday in greater Fort Lauderdale, with more than 150 Villages athletes set to head south over the next two-plus weeks to compete against the best the rest of the state has to offer.

“It validates what we do out here,” said Rick Riddle, coach of The Villages Track & Field Club. “Everything we build as a track family and as track athletes really gets validated as we compete against people outside our own group.”

Said Jennings: “It’s an annual tradition that we look forward to.” That was true even last December, when the Games had to be moved out of South Florida and scattered among various sites across the state’s midsection. And now under its more traditional single-site festival, more than 1,700 entrants are set to compete.

“We’ve been very pleased with the support of our Florida senior athletes,” said Nick Gandy, communications consultant for the governing Florida Sports Foundation. “They didn’t let us down last year, and they haven’t let us down this year.”

Gandy noted that pickleball has attracted more than 400 entrants — the largest number for any single sport in Florida Senior Games history. That tournament will take place after the rest of the festival, to be played Dec. 16-19 in Coral Springs. The Games also has attracted more than 300 athletes in track & field, along with nearly 200 swimmers.

“When you see the numbers of competitors and hear the (starter’s) guns go off, that kind of gets you going a little bit,” Riddle said. In The Villages, volleyball heads the list for most participants with 31. Track & field will have 20 athletes competing; VAST is sending 18 swimmers.

More than a half-dozen athletes are set to compete in two different sports. Asked if the Florida Senior Games are among the big dates on the VAST calendar, Jennings said: “In a big red pen. Besides the national meet, this is a very, very important meet to this swim team.” It’s the 30th edition of the Florida Senior Games, which launched in 1992 in Bradenton and spent three years in The Villages from 2003-05.

It also can serve as a springboard on a couple of levels for when the National Senior Games make their delayed arrival in Fort Lauderdale next May. Those Games originally had been set for last month, but were pushed back in deference to virus concerns. Because of the date switch, the state festival offers one more chance for anyone who has not qualified for nationals to add to the list. Not that one would think there are that many left — Gandy noted some 2,700 Florida athletes already are qualified. If even one-third of those attend nationals, that would match the 900-plus Floridians who took part in the 2017 edition in Birmingham.

“We’ve wanted to get as many Florida athletes qualified as possible,” Gandy said. “We want to be good hosts (competitively) as we host the National Senior Games for the first time since 1999.”

For those who have already qualified, the state Games can serve as something of a dry run looking ahead to May. Several of this month’s venues — though not all — will be the same as for nationals. “It’s good to have a little experience (on site), just to know where you’re going and so forth,” said Riddle, whose athletes will compete at the Ansin Sports Complex in Miramar. “It’s a good track, too. Not like some other places they’ve put us.” Said Jennings:

“More than anything else, it’s the camaraderie of us all being together. Everybody really supports everybody at the meet, cheering for their teammates. That’s very special; it gives you an extra boost.”

And while medals undoubtedly are the most visible reward, it’s also important to celebrate when a teammate sets a personal best. “You don’t necessarily win gold because there (might be) another high-quality athlete out there,” Riddle said. Said Jennings: “Sometimes a person gets fourth who might have swum the best race of his or her life. And that’s just as important as finishing first.”

As is simply the experience of spending time together with teammates. Jennings recalled one meet on Florida’s east coast several years ago when temperatures dipped down into the 40s — compounded by rain. “I guarantee you it gets brought up all the time,” Jennings said. “When it gets cold, somebody always says, ‘Hey, remember that year when we all froze?’”

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