COLUMBIA — It was 1985. Rick Matheny saw something and stopped in his tracks.
Hustling to the terminal at Columbia Regional Airport, Matheny noticed a flier on a counter at the small airport that would affect the rest of his life. The flier was for a new Olympic-style sports competition held in Columbia called the Show-Me State Games.
Matheny and his family were on their way to Hawaii, where 80-degree weather, clear blue water and white sandy beaches awaited them. However, while boarding the plane, Matheny’s mind was not on that paradise but on the Show-Me State Games.
“I just have always enjoyed competing and ran across a flier at the Columbia airport 25 years ago. I thought it looked like fun and entered table tennis that year,” Matheny said. “I wished I’d have seen it sooner to get my basketball team into it.”
Matheny scrambled to sign up as soon as he arrived back in Columbia. He stands at a limber 6-feet-2-inches and says he is extremely athletic and competitive. When he was a child, he turned everything into a tournament. He played college basketball at Manhattan Christian College, and at 26, he competed in many sports including basketball, table tennis and 5k and 10k races. Sports were his life, and the Show-Me State Games offered him another opportunity to compete.
“The nature of the Show-Me State Games kind of summarizes me: Jack of all trades, master of none,” Matheny said.
For the next 25 years, the Show-Me State Games became a staple in Matheny’s life and Columbia. Now at 51 years old, Matheny has participated every year, competed in 10 different sports, coached his kids and volunteered. This year, Matheny plans to participate in the father-son golf tournament, miniature golf, par 3 golf and bowling.
The Show-Me State Games, which are to begin Friday in Columbia, are the largest state games in the nation and offer competition in more than 40 sports.
But for Matheny, the games have become more than just competitions. They have become an outline for the last 25 years of his life.
“The Show-Me State Games provided a goal. It’s an objective to see myself do better,” Matheny said.
The first year, the games were played from Aug. 1 to Aug. 3. Nearly 600 participants showed for 10 different sports. Many of the indoor sports were held at the Brewer Fieldhouse, where athletes played on a carpeted gym floor with dim lighting that made it hard to see. The floor was rickety and in bad condition, making it tough to compete on. Matheny said the games were also poorly organized.
“It was a little bit helter-skelter in terms of which events started when and which match took place where,” Matheny said. “I remember people signed up at the last second. (Commissioners) would say ‘Hey, we don’t have people in this age division, do you want to join?’ There was no set registration.”
John Dickey of Brentwood competed in the state games every year since it began.
“The first year there was not a lot of participation. There was a more compressed schedule, and it was all in the Columbia area,” Dickey said.
Despite the unorganized nature of the games, Matheny enjoyed his first year and began competing with his basketball team in the following years. Matheny said the games became more organized and the competition grew. Ken Ash, executive director of the Show-Me State Games, said that the games wouldn’t have grown without the sports festivals held in 10 locations around Missouri before the official state games.
“The turning point was when we put in the festivals. Early on, it laid the foundation to get people coming to the Show-Me State Games,” Ash said.
As competition grew, Matheny went on to win the basketball tournament several times, including in 1990 when he played with multiple college basketball stars such as Willie Smith, who is in the MU Hall of Fame.
“I remember that year we had won our first game by 70, then 60 and the championship game by 50,” Matheny said. “One of my biggest regrets was playing in the second division because they placed us based on the previous year. We missed out on playing against the good competition in the first division.”
However, when Matheny got older, he had two kids who were able to start competing in the games. The Show-Me State Games were no longer just about training and competing for himself but about coaching and being with his family. Matheny even began playing soccer — a sport he had never played before — to help coach his son’s team.
“As the games approached, we would look to see which age groups competed when, and then pick what events I would enter based on their schedule,” Matheny said.
Throughout the mid-1990s Matheny spent most of his energy shuttling his kids'sports teams from one event to another. Matheny would participate in soccer and basketball during those years, but his main focus was coaching his son’s teams. Matheny remembers that in 1994 he had to shuttle his kids to and from games in sweltering 98-degree heat.
“I remember when I was coaching my son’s soccer and basketball teams; both competitions were the same weekend. After we got the soccer game under control, we would pull as many kids as possible from soccer for basketball,” Matheny said. "We would go from one venue to another, drop the kids off and try to find a place to park."
The Show-Me State Games eventually grew to include more than 30,000 participants in 1995. The games were no longer played on the carpeted floors of Brewer Fieldhouse but instead on the smooth hardwood courts at Hearnes Center and nicer facilities around Columbia. Some games were even televised. However, while the games grew in size, Ash said that they began placing more of an emphasis on family.
“We try to structure everything for the family; that’s how people come to Columbia,” Ash said.
The Show-Me State Games have helped provide a common link for Matheny and his son Mike during his youth and a way to keep in touch after Mike grew up. Mike Matheny, who is 28 years old, has participated with his father over the last six years in the father-son golf tournament and tennis doubles.
“Sports have been our main bonding time,” Mike Matheny said. “Now it gives us a reason to get together and do something and compete.”
In 2004, Matheny was in danger of missing his first Show-Me State Games because of a hamstring problem. However, the games had grown to offer more than 30 sports. Matheny knew there had to be something he could compete in.
“It occurred to me I was about to miss my first games ever, so I looked through the book (of events) and decided to do walk-up registration for miniature golf,” Matheny said.
Matheny is still as competitive as ever and excited for another opportunity to compete with his son. Even while practicing with his son at the driving range at A.L. Gustin Gold Course, Matheny remains competitive.
“Let’s see who can hit it farther,” Matheny said.
“Ping,” his son takes a bad swing with his driver, and the ball skips along the green grass field.
“I can beat that,” Matheny said, mocking his son in between laughs. “Ping,” Matheny’s ball soars past his son’s with a slight fade to the right.
Mike Matheny laughs as his father hits his shot past his own, knowing that on a normal drive he can hit it 350 yards. However, he would rather let his father have his moment. Besides, they are a team.
“We’re going to compete together as long as he can. He’s very athletic, and as long as he can swing a club, we’ll be involved,” Mike Matheny said.