January 21, 2022

Senior Games return to Cortland

Runners leave the starting line in last year’s 5K run at the Empire State Senior Games. Keith Eggleston, of Groton, number 972, won the race with a time of 18:23.

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Runners leave the starting line in last year’s 5K run at the Empire State Senior Games. Keith Eggleston, of Groton, number 972, won the race with a time of 18:23.

Pat O’Rourke took it a little easy Friday — her hectic time starts Monday. Husband Gerry was running around town getting ready for the Empire State Senior Games.

They’re not athletes. They’re volunteers, two of about 50 in an aerobic kind of volunteering. Starting Monday, Pat O’Rourke will assemble her team and begin setting up. They’ll stuff bags with T-shirts and other trinkets, organize them by size and arrange them alphabetically — one for each of the 1,100 athletes.

They’ll put candy in the bowls at the registration desk, set up coffee makers and prepare the sweets for each athlete coming by. “It’s a long day,” O’Rourke said Friday. “But they thank you so much it makes you want to go back.”

More than 1,100 seniors from around New York will descend on Cortland next week, filling the town with runners, tennis players, bowlers, cyclists and pickleball players.

They’ll be here for fun, and they come back year after year because Cortland provides a good experience, organizers say. And they pay for the experience of a friendly smile and a good time.

A day visitor to Cortland typically spends about $89, said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Cortland County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Families staying overnight can expect to spend $289 a day. With 1,100 athletes, many bringing their families and staying in hotels, that adds up — hundreds of thousands of dollars last year.

“They’re a great crowd to have around,” Dempsey said. “They have the discretionary income, obviously. A lot of them explore the area.”

The area is expanding, too. Some of the golf events are in Onondaga County, and the cycling races are in Scipio, in Cayuga County, said Machell Phelps, executive director of the Cortland Regional Sports Council.

Phelps spent Friday afternoon unpacking boxes and getting ready for O’Rourke and the other volunteers. “We really go that extra mile to make them feel welcome,” Phelps said. Each bag contains the athlete’s credentials, on a lanyard, a T-shirt, a pin, and a few items donated by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

Each competitor gets a denim blue T-shirt; the medics get red and the volunteers get light blue. Officials get a gray polo. She tries for a different color scheme each year.

The events go beyond the athletic, she said. Bingo will be offered daily, and card games. An archery clinic will give people an opportunity to try a new sport, and there will be meals and trips to the theater. (Cortland Repertory Theatre is showing “The Fox on the Fairway” at Little York Lake.)

“It’s as much the social aspect as competition,” Phelps said.

In return, Dempsey said, those athletes will, ideally, return home with pleasant memories of Cortland. The Empire State Senior Games is one of the four largest of the 30 sporting events the Cortland Regional Sports Council organizes. “They become some of our best ambassadors when they go home,” he said.

So while it’s a long day for Pat and Gerry O’Rourke — they expect to work 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily — it does pay off for the community: “That’s what it’s about,” Pat O’Rourke said. “Happy, friendly people.”