Deb Smith may never sign a sports shoe endorsement or find herself on a box of Wheaties. But the 62-year-old executive director of the Maine Recreation and Parks Association couldn’t care less.
A basketball player since her high school days, what Smith does care about is competing with fellow teammates in the annual Maine Senior Games.
For athletes like Smith, the thrill of competition has no age limits and thanks to the Maine Senior Games, adults over age 45 may continue to shoot hoops, run, golf, bowl, bicycle, swim or run triathlons against their peers for a shot at attending the biannual National Senior Games.
“We just love it,” said Smith, who competed with the Maine Fusion basketball team during the last national games in Birmingham, Alabama. “Make no mistake, it’s about competing, but it’s also about the comradeship and the friendships we create with people all over — many are people we just see every other year at the [national] senior games.”
Started in the 1980s, the Maine Senior Games is an Olympic-style competition with events divided into age groups and held on 22 days between May and October in locations from southern to central Maine.
“Anyone can enter,” Jo Dill, Maine Senior Games Coordinator for the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, said. “We get all kinds of people from all over the state.”
There are no qualifiers to take part in the Maine Senior Games, all athletes have to do is select one or more of the 18 events and register.
The games are held every year, Dill said, but only even-year games serve as qualifiers for the nationals which are held in odd-years.
The next national games will be in 2019 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“We are an open group that welcomes everyone regardless of how good or competitive they feel they are,” Dill said. “Many people do it because they tell me it keeps them fit and they want to feel good and live longer.”
By far, she said, her most competitive group are the cyclists who compete in time trials ranging from 5K to 40K.
“I call them my road warriors,” she said with a laugh. “But there is also such the social aspect of this.”
For Smith, who coaches basketball in her spare time, it’s also about helping other women discover their inner-athlete.
“I had a woman email me about a month ago saying she’s like to come check out our [basketball] practices,” Smith said. “She finally came and later I got another email from her saying what a blast it was to get on the court — that’s the kind of thing that is really appealing to me.”
Smith, who says she is on a “lifelong mission of helping people get to where they want to be,” welcomes newcomers to the world of competition.
“It’s never too late,” she said. “We get women from all over at every skill level and the common bond for us is basketball.”
In a qualifying year, Dill said, she sees about 600 senior athletes compete in Maine. The top four in each age division then moves on to the national games.
“We sent 82 [senior athletes] to Birmingham this year,” she said. “Of course, athletes are responsible for their own [travel] expenses and there is no private jet for us,” she added with a laugh.
Dill said she never fails to be impressed by the dedication of the athletes.
“We have a 93-year-old woman who throws javelin,” she said. “She had back surgery not long ago, but because she is in such good shape, she came back to compete.”
Dill spoke of another athlete who, after suffering a massive stroke in April was participating in track events at the end of July.
“I think being in shape helps you recover from surgeries or other medical issues,” she said. “It’s such a win-win.”
Anyone considering taking part in the games should first go as a spectator and chat with the athletes, Smith suggests.
“Right away you are going to feel a sense of belonging, regardless of your skill level,” Smith said. “It’s all about support and encouragement — don’t get me wrong, there is competition, but after we compete as hard as we can, we all hug and laugh when the games are over.”
Athletes do come from other states to compete in Maine, Dill said, but the beauty is even if the out-of-staters finish in the top spots, they can’t take the place of Maine residents at the nationals.
“It’s the top-finishing Mainers in any given age group in the events that can move on,” she said.
“It’s just such an amazing feeling to be part of The Senior Games,” Smith said. “I truly believe everyone is an athlete and some just need to discover it inside of them — whether it’s going for a walk every day or being intense out on the basketball court like I am, it’s all in you regardless of how much you are doing.”
There is a complete schedule of all upcoming Maine Senior Games events and locations on the Southern Maine Agency on Aging website at smaaa.org/msg.html.