June 10, 2011
Torch lights up Senior Games
Considering this was her first appearance ever at the Empire State Senior Games, Jean Marleau certainly was not expecting to be asked to take part in this special moment.
That’s why the 90-year-old Senior Games neophyte from Plattsburgh was so surprised to be involved in the torch lighting ceremony held Thursday evening at the Park Center Alumni Ice Arena on the SUNY Cortland campus. The occasion officially opened these Olympic-style games that had actually just completed its second full day of events.
Marleau had already won a gold medal in her age group during the opening golf tournament held at Walden Oaks Country Club, had already earned a silver and gold during the shuffleboard competition at Lusk Field House, before joining up with 87-year-old David Welsh to parade to Alumni Arena stage with the lighted torch in hand to highlight last night’s festivities.
“A man just came up to me and asked: Do you want to be a torch bearer?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Sure you do,’” is how Marleau cheerfully remembers being drawn into carrying the torch.
It was a fitting honor for Marleau, who took up golf as a teenager and made that a life-long passion, who served 31 years as a nurse in an Army nursing home and who also worked at her profession perilously close to the front lines during the famous World War II Battle of the Bulge held in the winter of 1944-45.
It was also fitting to have a first-timer like Marleau featured, considering this is also the first time that the Empire State Senior Games have been held here without full state support. Financial state budget woes threatened to put a halt to an event that has grown accustomed to visiting Cortland every June.
That’s why the Cortland Regional Sports Council and the Cortland County Convention & Visitors Bureau — with Machell Phelps and Jim Dempsey, respectively, leading the way for each organization — are now teaming up to run this show and keep the Empire State Senior Games in town. Both were lauded for their efforts by Bob Haight of the Cortland Chamber of Commerce during his address to the senior athletes gathered for dinner and dancing last night.
“This is something we didn’t want to let go,” chimed in Greg Olson, the acting director of the New York State Office for the Aging who also spoke at the torch lighting ceremony.
That’s why Phelps, chatting prior the ceremony, said of the 1,100 athletes who registered to compete over four days of competition this year: “We’re glad they came on such short notice.”
Speaking later to the competitors, Phelps also asked them to “please have patience with us as we learn the ropes.”
“I HAVE MET A LOT of nice people and it’s well run and everyone is just go, go go... which is great, which is the way it should be,” are Marleau’s impressions of her first Empire State Senior Games appearance.
Plattsburgh used to bring a good-sized contingent to these games, Cathy Witkowski from the YMCA there getting help from the Office for the Aging to get that task accomplished. Marleau was the lone Witkowski companion for this year’s trip to Cortland.
“They used to bring down a whole bus load, but no one has been volunteering to go the last year or so, so I said I’ll go. Why not?” said Marleau. “It’s been a great experience and I’ve had a ball. It kind of died out, but I hope it starts up again.”
Marleau first swung a golf club at age nine, began playing seriously as a 13-year-old growing up in Rouses Point when her mother insisted she take lessons. There was a time in the not so recent past when she hit the links practically every day, and still belongs to two leagues and tries to participate as much as possible.
She was disappointed she had no competition in her 85-and-older age group, longing to test her talents against someone else. “I got that gold anyway,” she noted with a smile. “It’s a gold and I played very well. It’s a hard course and I had never played on it before.”
Torch bearer Welsh, from the town of Pendleton near Lockport in Western New York, has been in Cortland before. He has been an Empire State Senior Games regular season since turning 60, meaning he’s a 27-year veteran.
He showed off some nifty dance steps while accompanying Marleau to the stage, the theme song from the movie “Rocky” blaring from the Ice Arena loudspeakers.
“I feel at home at a hockey rink,” said Welsh later, hockey having been his favorite athletic endeavors as a Minnesota native who moved to Western New York with his family. He had his sons and daughter play hockey and do gymnastics, his daughter playing on a state championship team that went to Minnesota for nationals one year. He also coached championship softball and baseball teams.
“During the winter I cross country ski. I have a farm and it’s fun,” is how Welsh stays fit these days. “And during the summer I use poles and pole-walk.”
He also got a kick picking up victory during the shuffleboard competition, one sport along with tennis where he earned the medals that were still draped around his neck.
“We beat these guys from Florida, younger guys from Florida,” said Welsh. “And they play all winter long and all summer long, and they had these special poles, and we beat them 95 to 85, and they were shocked. I just used a regular pole and they had these special poles that cost $100. Who needs those $100 poles? They’re just as good as the cues they have here.”
THE GAMES CONTINUE today and Saturday, with women’s softball at Beaudry Park the lone event on the Sunday slate. Because of the New York State girls’ lacrosse state tournament semifinals being held at the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex today, the track competition has been moved from a morning session to 4:30 p.m. this afternoon.
Of course, the competition is not the only thing that matters during this week.
Cortland’s Lean Oughterson, who would have taken part in the bowling competition with fellow 96-year-old Gerry Myers if not for a hip injury suffered not too long ago while taking a fall while bowling, was on hand for the torch lighting ceremony even though he is unable to do any events.
Oughterson pointed out he’s been to every Senior Games since 1982, where is medal haul has reached 50, and he attending the dinner hoping to catch up with some old friends he had met from previous years — which is also what makes the Empire State Senior Games so special.
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