Doris Prokopi spent her first 59 years watching sports from the sidelines.
When her son swam competitively, she was his cheerleader. Then he left for college, and it was her turn to jump into the pool and compete … and compete … and compete.
Now 77, her athleticism and success is impressive — including eight All-American honors from United States Masters Swimming. But it all started with the excitement of her first races in the Tampa Bay Senior Games.
"There's the thrill, standing on the blocks and waiting for the whistle to blow," she says of the feeling she still gets, 18 years later. "And then the adrenaline just shoots through you."
As many as 650 athletes are expected to take part in the 32nd annual games, which will take place over two weeks in late-September and early-October, says David Andrews, Hillsborough County recreational program specialist.
The games, which are for men and women ages 50 and up, draw hardcore athletes such as Prokopi as well as those who relish a once-a-year chance to compete.
"You don't have to be an athlete to do all this," says Andrews, who makes sure the games include less physical activities, such as dominos, bean-bag toss and a popular talent show.
Temple Terrace resident Pat Barker has snagged a table full of trophies since he first signed up in 1995. The former YMCA administrator participates in 15 to 20 events, including the basketball throw, swimming, billiards, track events and bowling (the one activity he still does regularly).
Barker ran track in high school in the 1950s, and coached for decades, but he hasn't worked out regularly since retiring.
"I've really been lucky," Barker, 72, says of his wins. "I don't train at all."
It costs just $20 to sign up, and athletes can participate in as many of the 48 events as they want. Events are held at 14 venues and are hosted by recreation departments in Hillsborough County, Tampa and Temple Terrace, and the county's Department of Family and Aging Services.
Local events such as swimming and track serve as qualifiers for senior competitions on the state level, so the games draw plenty of serious competitors. But it's the camaraderie with other athletes that keeps bringing Prokopi and Barker back. Prokopi says she signs up for several non-swimming events just so she can enjoy meeting more athletes.
They're both sad that fewer old-timers are returning each year, and that fewer younger participants are signing up.
"The older guys stop doing it because they drop dead … or money issues," Barker says. "And the other problem is that there's no one taking our place."
Prokopi has become a passionate recruiter, offering her previous medals to other older swimmers at the New Tampa YMCA.
"I want to get them to stay in shape and get them to stop sitting in the chairs or couch," says Prokopi, who swims three hours a day, five days a week.
She's seen the impact being active can have on participants, including those who use a walker to compete in the 1-mile walk.
"They came back year after year because nobody laughed at them and no one said anything," she says. "In fact, we all clapped as they came in last. And they liked that, the seniors. You have to give them hope."
It takes emotional maturity to sign up for the games as the body ages, Prokopi and Barker say. But just competing can be rewarding.
In our games, everyone is a winner," Barker says.
"It doesn't matter if you finish last or not. I really believe that."