If you ask the Veterans who attended the 26th National Veterans Golden Age Games about youth, they might tell you it’s wasted on the young. Over 700 Vets, aged 55 and older, competed in the multi-event sports and recreational seniors’ competition program in St. Louis from May 31 – June 5.
“I hope I’m not bragging but I’ve won the gold in shuffleboard,” Bernard Eble said on our way to play some horseshoes.
Bernard is an 82-year-old Army Veteran and retired State Police Officer from Long Island. As we rode together on the bus, he told me he’s a real competitor and volunteer at his local VA. I learn about his wife June whom he married in January (57 years ago) and who he calls “a real keeper” and supporter of his athletic ways.
“This is my fifth Golden Age Games,” he told me. “Aside from competing, it’s about seeing all my old friends and the camaraderie.”
The camaraderie is what has kept Walker Kotowski moving. I met 85-year-old Walter last year in Hawaii at the 25th Golden Age Games. He was cruising around in his shooter wearing a hat emblazoned with “World War II Veteran” and always laughing with his fellow Vets. I noticed his smile immediately—it was sincere and warm—and we soon became friends.
Ten years ago, Walter’s wife Mary passed away and shortly after he moved into a Veterans home in Barstow, California. Walter met Jan Henderson, a Vietnam Veteran who sports a long sandy colored beard, whom he plays table tennis with almost daily.
“He’s got a lot of heart,” said Jan. “Last year, he won the gold in table tennis. We’ll see if he does it again this year.”
Walter’s lucky paddle sits in a basket attached to his scooter. He spilled his breakfast on it—milk, eggs—you name it, the paddle was covered in it. He’s concerned the referees might make him use a new paddle but that doesn’t matter. Walter has informed me that he has his other lucky charm there with him—me.
“Now, Walter,” I said to him, “you gotta go out there and kick some ass.”
“Up or down?” he asks.
Walter’s competitor rolls up. It’s Wayne Field, a World War II Army Veteran and avid swimmer who has won more than 200 medals in 23 appearances at VA events. Walter smiles and heads to his assigned table. Ten minutes later, the game was over. Walter won the gold for a second year in a row. Jan and I cheered like proud parents on graduation day.
I made Walter make me a promise: Next year, around the same time, we were going to meet in Buffalo (the site of the 27th Golden Age Games) and he was going to win the gold again for a third year in a row.
“God willing, Kate!”
Bernard and Walter encompass what the games are about: appreciating every aspect of life. The lifelong friendships that are made every year. Reuniting with fellow service members. Personal health. The ability to compete (and of course, win medals). And to do it all again next year.
Below are hundreds of photographs from the 2012 National Veterans Golden Age Games. Learn how to participate and volunteer at the Games here and other VA events.