With detailed play-by-play of unforgettable, against the odds victories , Rudy Kelley talks about the National Veterans Golden Age Games the way most men talk about their glory days on the high school football team. With one exception: He can return each year to create more memories.
Kelley and three other local veterans are representing Truman Veterans Hospital in the 18th annual games next week in Fresno, Calif. The group of athletes prepares and trains for about six months prior to the games and typically they bring home top medals, said Kelley, who is in his 10th year as coach and coordinator of the team.
“We have such a good group of people and such serious competitors,” Kelley said. “We train pretty hard.”
Take Helen Mackey of Mountain Grove. The 81-year-old former Army Air Corp medical technician drives an hour to a swimming pool three days a week to train for her events, the 50 and 100 meter. In her three years of competing, she has brought back four gold medals. But, after last year’s games, when she settled for two silvers, Mackey hired a personal trainer.
“I’ve always swam, since I was a child,” Mackey said, “but I never had a coach until now. I’m going to try [to get gold again], but at 81, how can I complain?”
To qualify for the games, veterans must be at least 55 years old, and register for a minimum of two events. Competitions include athletic events such as biking and swimming, but also includes mind-challenging events such as dominoes and checkers.
Kelley said that while the games are all in good fun, there are a handful of aggressive players. He recalled a fistfight that broke out during a croquet match just before a member of his team, Wayne Warren, knocked out an improbable shot to win the gold.
“Ninety-nine percent is good clean rivalry,” Kelley said, although he admits that the few aggressive matches make for the best stories.
The cost of the annual trip usually runs between $5,000 and $6,000, Kelley said. The participants spend months raising funds to ensure what Kelley calls a “freebie trip for the participants.”
“We have to work together to get there, so we are a better team for it,” said Henri Jefferson, who participates in the bike races. “Our greatest challenge is to raise the funds because not as many people know about (the games).”
Once in Fresno, the team joined 515 other competitors for the opening ceremonies Sunday night. The games begin today. The outdoor events are scheduled for the morning out of concern for the 100-degree heat of Southern California, said David Phillips, coordinator for public affairs at the National Veterans Golden Age Games Center.
Extracurricular activities have been scheduled during the afternoons and evenings when the participants aren’t competing.
“During the course of the week we have alternate activities, such as going to Yosemite and Monterey, planned, as well as numerous tours, like a wine tour and an underground garden tour,” Phillips said.
“(The extra activities) are one of the main things I go for,” Jefferson said. “Especially in California because we see a lot of entertainers.” Jefferson and Kelley both recalled meeting Bo Derek and Ernest Borgnine in previous years.
Because the games are held in a different location each year, the team has become a well-traveled group of friends, Kelley said.
“Even though the games are in different cities each year — like they were in (Orono,) Maine last year — we meet the same people year after year and are able to build good relationships,” Kelley said.
Robert E. Lee of Montreal, who competes in the bowling and pentathlon events, will join Kelley, Mackey and Jefferson for this year’s games. Kelley plans to compete this year, in addition to his duties as coach of the local team.
“For me it’s not for the competition, but for fun,” Kelley said. “I could get last, but it doesn’t matter as long as the food is good.”
Mackey said Kelley “keeps us on our toes” as a coach — not that she needs anyone to motivate her.
“I think these games are one of the best things that has happened to seniors with the VA,” Mackey said. “I really believe that exercise is the medicine of the future.”