You may have spotted them taking in the sights and basking in the sunshine.
If you passed Old Erie County Hall in downtown Buffalo on Thursday morning, you would have seen 61-year-old John Martinez of Fresno, Calif., flexing his muscles and declaring himself more than ready to compete as a swimmer in the 27th National Veterans Golden Age Games. The games begin today in Buffalo with, well, an opening round of checkers that has a gold medal at stake.
Don’t let that throw you.
Although shuffle board, dominoes and checkers are part of the games, there will be plenty more on the physically demanding side – discus throwing and shot put, cycling and swimming races, too.
“I started taking this seriously in March, getting ready for the games. I’ve been swimming three times a week and have lost 20 pounds,” Martinez said, as another Team Fresno member, rubbing his own belly, declared he had found those lost pounds.
It was a scene of camaraderie that was repeated countless times Thursday as more than 750 older military veterans from across the country registered for the games, which will continue through Tuesday at several venues across the Buffalo Niagara region.
The games were temporarily derailed earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, because of budget problems brought on by the sequestration in Washington, D.C. But that is all a distant memory.
Game participants are veterans 55 years or older who receive care from a VA medical facility. The games are expected to make the region an economic winner, with an anticipated infusion of about $2.2 million spent on meals and beverages, hotels and transportation as participants and their families travel about seeing the sights.
The arrival of the games in Buffalo has been six years in the making, according to Peter Harvey, director of the Buffalo Sports Commission, part of Visit Buffalo Niagara, who said the region is “honored” to host the competitors.
“They are a great bunch of folks, and so many of them have their spouses with them. Each of the days the veterans are here they’re issued a debit card with $56, their stipend for food and beverages that they will spend throughout the community,” Harvey said.
For the veterans, though, it is all about having a chance to compete in events that provide a healthy, active lifestyle and a chance to socialize with one another.
“It’s the camaraderie, being together. That’s why we have the games,” said former Marine Danny Lawson, 63, of Stonyford, Calif., and a member of Team Fresno. “I compete in the discus, shot put and swimming.”
He is quick to add that competitions such as shuffleboard, checkers and dominoes should not be discounted.
“A lot of veterans in those competitions will talk to each other. Veterans can tend to isolate from the community, but when they get together with other veterans they open up,” Lawson said.
Toni Lopez, coach of Team Fresno, said the games are as much about socializing as they are about exerting physical prowess.
“We’ve met athletes coming in from Texas, Florida, Arizona, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont,” she said of the camaraderie that has been building since her team arrived Tuesday night. “The recreation of the games is very therapeutic for the well-being of veterans.”
Louie Moller, a 65-year-old former Marine who served in Vietnam, agreed with Lopez and recalled the hurt he felt when he returned home from the unpopular war and had to hide the fact that he was a veteran or face ridicule.
“When I went to college, I couldn’t say I was a veteran. If you did, you were shunned,” Moller said. “Here at these games, I feel right at home.”
On the lighter side, Cliff Strong, a 78-year-old Army veteran, says he is proud to be back for his fifth year of competing in checkers, table tennis and nine-ball billiards.
He’s also proud of the five gold medals he has won in past Golden Age competitions.
So what is the strategy to achieve the gold in checkers?
Strong says you look for patterns and hope “that you’re lucky.”
Each of the teams will showcase a sport and put on exhibitions of how it is played, according to Evangeline Conley, spokeswoman for the VA Western New York Healthcare System.
Buffalo-area veterans will be showing off their specialty sport, sled hockey, on the ice at the Northtown Center in Amherst from 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. Monday.
“The person sits strapped into the sled and has two sticks that have picks on the bottom to push. It’s for upper body and core strength,” Conley said. “Athletes here in town will have an opportunity to try the sport. The name of our team is Buffalo Sabres Sled Hockey.”
As hundreds of veterans registered at the downtown Buffalo Niagara Convention Center on Thursday, which happens to be the traditional holiday for Memorial Day,
Conley said that the excitement was intense and that the goal was to put on the best Golden Age Games possible.
Team Fresno members, in sharing their excitement outside old County Hall, spontaneously took a moment to express thanks to Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who went to bat to save the games after the VA abruptly “postponed” them in late March.
With pressure from the legislators, the business community and area veteran organizations, the VA reconsidered and reinstated the games.
Sixty-seven-year-old Gary Wright, who served in the Air Force, said Higgins and Schumer proved to be “powerhouses” in the battle to restore the games.
At the opening ceremony Thursday night in the Convention Center, Higgins cheered the veterans on, telling them to compete fairly and vigorously.
“This is a great event that we gripped from the jaws of postponement. Buffalo is a great venue because of the high number of veterans living here, and we’re having beautiful weather and getting a chance to showcase the new Buffalo,” Higgins said.
For a complete list of the games, times and locations, check online at www.veteransgoldenagegames.va.gov and click on the “schedule of events” tab.