This year was shaping up to be a good one for the Chatham County Senior Games.
Disc golf and cheerleading were set to make their debuts as official competitions. Artists were ready to unveil the paintings, essays and wood carvings they’d spent months on. And there was, as always, plenty of catching up to do among participants and staff.
The coronavirus pandemic, of course, changed those plans. But organizers have gotten creative with their summer plans in an attempt to capture the fun and energy of the usual events, which drew around 250 participants last year.
“This year’s a little bit different,” said Liz Lahti, the head coordinator and a manager at the Chatham County Council on Aging.
The group moved its SilverArts competition, which features contests for everything from basket-weaving to poems to photography, to an online voting portal that opened on June 1.
Lahti said her steering committee is also finalizing plans for a drive-by medal ceremony next month — complete with a speaker system and the Chatham Charmers, the aforementioned senior cheerleading team — after voting ends and the winners are announced in late June.
“It was kind of disappointing,” Lahti said of the cancellation. “You put a lot of time and effort into it. Still, this is a way to connect.”
The Chatham County Council on Aging, which organizes the county’s senior games with the help of local sponsors, suspended in-person events before ultimately canceling them on May 1.
Lahti said Dennis Streets, the council’s executive director, had trustworthy contacts at the state and local level who helped him understand early the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak and its dangers, especially toward the elderly.
That made the decision to cancel tough but logical.
“We had to be extremely cautious,” Lahti said. “I think (participants) were relieved a decision was finally made...for the most part, they understood.”
The North Carolina Senior Games Association, which holds statewide finals through the fall, recommended all local chapters cancel in-person events soon afterward. Streets, who also serves on the board of directors there, helped formulate the idea of a virtual SilverArts competition in its place (which the statewide association also recommended).
Lahti and her staff spent the month of May gearing up for that pivot. They checked in with participants — most were happy to transition to online — and had them submit photos or videos of their art or performances.
Community members can vote in 19 categories via Google Form on the council’s website. To ensure fairness and prevent multiple submissions, each voter must use a valid email address. Lahti, who has helped with the games for three years, reviewed the submissions beforehand and was impressed (as she is every time).
“A lot of this stuff, even the paintings, it looks like, ‘Wow, you would buy that,’” she said. “The quality of their artwork is phenomenal.”
On the sports side, longtime participants such as Steve Barrett missed out on events that have become routine.
Barrett, an 86-year-old retired psychiatrist who lives in Pittsboro, has been swimming at the games since 2008 and said it’s always “a pleasant experience.”
It’s been a successful one, too. Barrett has won 137 state championship events and earned 40 national and 16 international medals.
As someone who had heart bypass surgery in his 50s, Barrett primarily uses swimming to stay healthy. The added structure (and medals) provided by the Chatham County Senior Games and larger organizations are an added benefit.
“I call it a reaffirmation of being alive when I win an event,” said Barrett, who for now is using his daughter’s Endless Pool to stay sharp.
Lahti said she missed smaller aspects of the games, too, such as catching up with Christine DeGraffenreidt. DeGraffenreidt, 92, has collected T-shirts from every Senior Games since 1999 — and every year, the council borrows those shirts and displays them at their opening ceremony.
There are some silver linings. For example, most of this year’s participants chose to stay registered and receive a commemorative T-shirt rather than getting a refund, which Lahti saw as a good sign. And the sporting competitions can sometimes “overshadow” the arts competitions, she said, so it’s good to showcase the latter.
Still, she finds herself looking forward even more to the next time the Senior Games can go on safely — with what she expects will be a record crowd of participants and spectators at Northwood High School.
“You know, absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Lahti said. “I think a lot of people are wanting to come back to our center and play sports.”
Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.
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