Collaborating for Champions: Students and the Senior Games

The athletes’ muscles tense as their ears ring, waiting to hear the starting buzzer. In the instant the buzzer sounds, the athletes rush from the blocks and the fans let out a roar of cheering. Sitting in the stands, you may think that you’re at an Olympics qualifying event…until you realize that the athletes are all over the age of 50. The Huntsman World Senior Games, held annually in St. George, hosts about 11,000 athletes in events similar to those of the Rio Olympics. Our own Gerontology Department helps sponsor this event because it helps students gain significant, high-quality training and learning experience while representing BYU. At this past October’s games, there were 67 students from various majors across the BYU campus volunteering at the event, producing around 3,000 volunteer hours, and of these 67 students, 16 were studying something within the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences, and seven of those were Gerontology minors.

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One of them, Oleg Mironchenko, shared that at the Senior Games he learned alot about the joy that good health can bring to an individual as they age. He said: “It has changed my perception about getting old and has served as a motivator to take care of my body while I am young.” His  fellow volunteer and Gerontology minor Tyler Brown added that “this was an incredible experience to open your eyes to another side of getting older. You see the people who care about taking care of their bodies and you gain hope in having an independent and fulfilling life throughout your lifetime.”

As Gerontology students have learned, aging is a lot more than getting wrinkles and discounts at restaurants. It’s about taking care of your health and embracing every opportunity and especially every sporting event at the Senior Games. As said by Gerontology student Sarah Rogers, “seeing older adults play at such a competitive level reminded me how important it was to stay healthy and physically active throughout my life.”

Service and Education

Volunteering at the Games is a true combination of service and education. Students provide health screenings three full days during each of the two weeks of the Games. This year, an estimated 3,000 unique athletes went through at least several aspects of the health screenings. “In some cases these health screenings have had life-saving implications for the participants,” said Hager. “Every year we are…able to identify a few of the games participants who have no idea regarding life-threatening health risks they are experiencing…. We even have participants return the next year telling students that this station saved their life based on their previous years screening results  and their follow-up with their regular doctors. That is pretty gratifying for me and even more so for the students.”

11Regarding the educational value of the service for students, BYU Exercise Science professor Ron Hager, who has helped to ensure the quality of care, services, and screenings that volunteers provide for athletes since 1990 along side UVU nursing professor Gary Measom, says that part of his dedication for the Games is connected to the quality educational experience they provide for students. “For me, there are many facets to an education,” he said. “There is traditional in-class learning and instruction, but there is also the practical application of what is being learned, and even research opportunities,” shared Hager. “I feel like the students get great hands-on opportunities when they attend the games and many are involved in data collection for research projects at the undergraduate and graduate levels. For many students it is a complete paradigm shift in terms of what it means to get older as they interact with senior athletes who are committed to an active and healthy lifestyle into their later years.”

 

Impacting Athlete (and Student) Lives

16The Games tend to become more than just excellent service and educational experience, though. Hager reports: “Nearly every student I talk to has said that the Games volunteer experience has been one of the best experiences they have had while at BYU… Students not only make lasting friendships with other BYU students and students from other universities, but also with the athletes.”

Competitions aren’t all about winning, but as Professor Hager has shared, conducting health screenings at the Huntsman World Senior Games is “a win-win-win-win for the students, the Games, the Games participants, and myself [as an educator].”

 

 

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