October 22, 2021

1,000 compete at Empire State Senior Games

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Ellen Flynn of Homer, left, competes in the doubles pickleball tournament at the Empire State Senior Games on Wednesday in SUNY Cortland’s Lusk Field House. The games continue through Saturday and events delayed by rain will be Sunday.

Pickleball was the sport in this year’s Empire State Senior Games that saw the biggest growth in popularity.

It increased to 275 people from about 230 last year and became so popular there was a waiting list.

This was a first for the event, said Machell Phelps, executive director of the Cortland Regional Sports Council, which hosts the games. She can’t pinpoint the reason for the popularity of the paddle sport, which is a blend between tennis and table tennis.

But for Ellen Flynn, who started playing pickleball eight years ago, the sport’s popularity is understandable.
“It’s just a great sport and a lot of fun to play,” said Flynn, 59.

Flynn said it is a very social sport and easy to pick up, even at older ages. It’s played on a smaller court than tennis and involves less activity, but it requires good hand-eye coordination and quick response, said Flynn, who won gold in both her competitions this year, one in the female-only event, the other in mixed-doubles.

The most popular sport at the Senior Games remained volleyball, Phelps said, drawing 34 teams.

The games are scheduled to end Saturday, unless rain delays events until Sunday.

Thursday’s rain came late enough that it did not affect the tennis and golf events, which were earlier in the week. However, track and field today and cycling Saturday could be delayed by rain, Phelps said.

The games saw 1,115 competitors this year, Phelps said, about even with last year. The games also fall during what is called an “off year,” because it is not a year when participants can qualify to go to nationals. Participation is up from previous off years.

Because national Senior Games competitions are also taking place now in Alabama, Phelps said the games would have seen even greater participation.

The more people in town for the games, the more people stay at motels and hotels, eat at restaurants and spend money elsewhere.

“A lot of them like to explore and get out on Main Street and … they have the opportunity to take in a show at CRT (Cortland Repertory Theatre),” said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Cortland County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It’s a great way to showcase our community to senior athletes.”

He estimates families staying overnight may spend $289 a day, 1,100 athletes and their families adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the economy. Phelps estimates last year’s local economic boost was $437,000.

The sports council has a commitment with the state to host the games through 2026 and Phelps hopes to one day hit 1,500 participants.

“I like to think someday we’re going to,” Phelps said. “For the size of our state, we really should.”