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Senior Veterans Compete to Win at Golden Age Games

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

BIRMINGHAM, Ala., June 3, 2009 – Military veterans competing in the National Veterans Golden Age Games each year have their own reasons for participating. Some come out for the camaraderie, while others come to socialize and catch up with old friends.

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Jonah Hicks, a 64-year-old Marine Corps and Vietnam War veteran, speeds around the track June 2, 2009, in Birmingham, Ala., as part of the cycling event at the 23rd Annual National Veterans Golden Age Games. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
  

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But others simply come to win.

This year’s 23rd Annual National Golden Age Games here are no different.

“I train for the games all year long,” Don Starler, a 74-year-old Korean War-era veteran, said. “Working out and staying in shape is a large part of my life, and I love to compete.”

With 19 years of experience in the Golden Age Games, Starler is a fierce competitor who’s tallied more than 50 medals. He’s competed in a variety of events throughout the years, and has even qualified for the National Senior Olympics. His favorite events, he said, are the shot put, discus throw and cycling.

And despite having to learn to deal with a pacemaker over the past two years of games, he’s still focused on competing and winning gold. Back home in California, he works out every morning at his local Veterans Affairs hospital and urges other veterans regularly to make stronger efforts to improve their health and fitness. He credits the Golden Age Games for keeping him motivated.

“The Golden Age Games keeps me in shape all year long, because I work at it,” he said. “It’s definitely fun, and it’s good to keep going and pushing yourself for as long as you can.”

Even if senior veterans can’t compete in the physical competitions, Starler said, the less-strenuous games are just as fun to compete in and train for. This year’s games feature checkers, bowling, shuffleboard and table tennis as well as the biking, swimming and running events.

“There’s a huge variety of events here to participate in, and if you’re good at them, compete,” he said. “If you’re not good at them, start training and practicing. You’ll be happy you gave it a shot.”

Samuel J. Hicks Jr. is one of the younger competitors at 57, and is competing in his third Golden Age Games. The retired Marine said his first experience was an overall good time, and he quickly learned that even beyond youth, the spirit of competition never really dies.

“My first year was fun, because I just came out and enjoyed myself,” the Fresno, Calif., native said. “But then I quickly found out these guys are out for blood, and they want yours. They want that medal.

“It’s competitive,” Hicks said, “but it’s for a good purpose and to have a good time.”

Hicks shared Starler’s sentiment that the need to stay active and goal-oriented doesn’t go away with time. Being involved in as many activities as possible leads to a longer, healthier life, he added.

“You don’t have to be the strongest or the fastest,” he said. “You just have to keep yourself going and motivated. You’ll be healthier and feel better about yourself.”

Frank Dixon, a 28-year Air Force veteran, got into the Golden Age Games to give him a goal to work toward in his workouts. Before he learned about the games, he said, he trained for his health. Though that’s reason enough to stay fit, he added, he now he has an objective and a new mission.

“The games provide me with a positive reward for training and aids my physical condition,” Dixon, 63, said. “Hopefully, the event inspires my grandchildren to live an active life.”

Fitness is such a big part of Dixon’s life, he said, that he feels guilty on the occasional day he misses a workout.

“Once you get into the routine, focusing on your health is easy,” he said. “Just give the games and competition a shot and start out easy. Eventually, you may get into the medal running.”

The Golden Age Games are open to all U.S. military veterans 55 and older who receive care at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility. The games are co-sponsored by the VA, the Help Hospitalized Veterans nonprofit group and the Veterans Canteen Service. The games also are a qualifying event every other year for the National Senior Olympic Games.

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Department of Veterans Affairs

Click photo for screen-resolution imageRetired Army Master Sgt. Jim Chisel, 61, waits for his turn in the quarter-mile cycling race at the 23rd Annual National Veterans Golden Age Games in Birmingham, Ala., June 2, 2009. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageKorean War veteran Gustav Horn, 79, hopes for a strike as his bowling ball heads for the pins June 2, 2009, in Trussville, Ala., as part of the 23rd Annual National Veterans Golden Age Games. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageRalph Santos, left, 77, makes a move against Donald Udelhofen, 76, in a checkers match June 2, 2009, in Birmingham, Ala., as part of the 23rd Annual National Veterans Golden Age Games. Both are Army and Korean War veterans. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden  
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