Golden girls

By Colleen Holt

Two Central Arkansas women will be among the approximately 200 athletes competing at this year’s National Senior Olympics.

Frances Barger (from left) and Barbara Thomason, both of North Little Rock, are among those who have qualified to compete in the 2022 National Senior Games in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., May 10-23.

Frances Barger

Frances Barger is a veteran of the National Senior Olympics, having competed 10 times. She began running in her 50s, largely as therapy. “I ran track in high school. Running may be the reason I’ve made it to 88 years old. I really think it helps you.” She began running all distances, including participating in several 5K and 10K races.

The Vilonia native ran in the Arkansas Senior Olympics for several years before she went to Nationals. She holds six state Olympian records: 400m and 800m for ages 80-84; 5K for ages 75-79 and 80-84; and 10K for ages 75-79 and 80-84. Overall, she has 63 gold, 25 silver, and 5 bronze medals in the Arkansas Senior Olympics.

Her first experience at the National Senior Olympics was in 2001 at age 67. The first gold medal she collected was in the 400m race in 2003. Barger has competed in Baton Rouge, La.; Hampton Roads, Va.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Louisville, Ky.; Palo Alto, Calif.; Houston, Texas; Cleveland, Ohio; St. Paul, Minn.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Albuquerque, N.M. She has 5 gold, 7 silver, and 7 bronze medals from Nationals.

In the 2022 National games, she will compete in the 200m, 400m, 800m, and 1500m track events. The trip to Fort Lauderdale will be different from others because the family is flying, rather than driving. “It’s hard to go to Nationals sometimes if it’s a distance,” she said. “I prefer to drive because I have so many things, like shoes, to take.”

As part of the Senior Olympics, she has made cherished friends from across the U.S. “We have remained close in contact. It feels good to meet all these people, and it’s a rewarding experience.”

The atmosphere at the Senior Olympics can even be like a reunion. One female athlete from South Dakota has a scattered family, and her family sometimes gathers at the Games when she competes. “It’s always fun to see the friends you met in previous years and see what has gone on with their families. It’s great to hear some of their stories and how they started participating,” Frances said.

She will have family with her in Fort Lauderdale. In fact, her son Keith Barger and his family are coming from Helena, Mont. She also has two daughters, Sherry Mize and Marla Baker, both of Vilonia.

This year, the competition at Fort Lauderdale could be stiffer than normal. “The list [of contestants] for this year looks a little longer. I think Florida had something to do with it,” Barger said.

In spite of the friendships made, she said she still wants to win a medal. The first three athletes in each event win medals, and the next few receive ribbons. “Everybody is a senior, but there is still a lot of competition. It’s great to get a ribbon, but once you win a medal, that’s what you want,” she explained.

Due to macular degeneration, Frances had to quit running in 5K and 10K events, but she still enjoys hiking and staying active in a variety of ways. She says there is a church near her nursing home, and she enjoys running around the church parking lot.

“Once you get started in the Senior Olympics, you don’t want to quit,” she laughed.

Barbara Thomason

Barbara Thomason, 81, will participate in her first National Senior Games in Fort Lauderdale in the pickleball and tennis events. Her husband, Bill, is also competing in pickleball, and they will be among 72 Arkansans registered in 135 events in the pickleball tournament.

Pickleball is a game that has elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong put together. A paddle, a net, and a ball (similar to a wiffle ball) are the equipment used.

The couple has been playing the sport for about a year. Her husband introduced her to pickleball after seeing a YouTube video. “He had both of his knees replaced, and he couldn’t play tennis anymore. He saw a pickleball video and thought he could play it. He got involved, and then I got involved,” she explained.

Ironically, he also introduced her to tennis about 48 years ago. “I lived in a small town where we just rode horses. No sports were introduced to me. Bill and I went to Burns Park in North Little Rock for tennis lessons,” she said. 

At Nationals, she will play pickleball mixed doubles with her husband, and ladies doubles with another athlete. She added that she also plays singles in pickleball, but she didn’t  “want to put too many irons in the fire” at Nationals. In tennis, she will be entered in doubles. She already has five gold medals from the Arkansas Senior Olympics—four in pickleball and one in tennis.

The thing about pickleball, said Thomason, is that anyone can play. “You can go on the first day with a paddle and a ball and dink it over the net and have fun. You really can play it on the first day.” Tennis, she said, is a harder game to play. “They have the same concept, but they are definitely different games. In pickleball, you don’t have as much ground to cover. It’s fun and it’s for any age. Find a paddle, a court, and a ball, and just get out there and start,” she said. “Elderly people can play it.”

The Thomasons are excited about the trip to Florida, and they plan to drive. She said the pickleball events are in one area of the city, and tennis events are in another area, so they will need their own transportation.

Thomason said she has made friends playing both sports. “When you’re playing tennis and pickleball, you barely have time to clean your house,” she laughed. “I started from scratch, [I was] a small town girl. Now I’ve met a lot of nice people. If you work hard, you can do it.”

So why try for Nationals at this time in her life? “Time is running out. So if we’re going to do this, we better do this now.”