Since 1985, the National Veterans Golden Age Games has offered sports and recreational competitive events to encourage active, healthy lifestyles for Veterans 55 years and older, or younger if disabled, who receive care from a VA Medical Center. It’s the largest competition for this age group of Veterans in the world, and it continues to showcase the rehabilitation value that wellness and fitness provide to our Veterans.
Every year the games are hosted by one or more VA Medical Centers. This year’s event was held May 31 – June 5 in St. Louis, Missouri, hosted by the VA St. Louis Health Care System. All participants received a warm welcome, including best wishes from Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. “This week nearly 900 Veteran athletes will demonstrate the value of an active lifestyle in reducing the risks of obesity, diabetes, depression, and a host of other avoidable illnesses that unnecessarily afflict those who are aging,” he wrote in a letter to competitors and their supporters. “When in uniform, these men and women exemplified courage, vitality, and the can-do spirit of young Americans. Today, through their participation in these games, they continue to exemplify those same strengths for Americans of all ages.”
This year a team called the “Nor Cal Dinos,” which included two Veterans who receive care at the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC), traveled to the games to participate and capture some Olympic-style medals. Army Veteran Ray Trevino, age 74, and Navy Veteran Don Smith, age 80, both residents of the Veterans Home of California – Yountville – and patients at SFVAMC, arrived with their guide dogs to compete in the visually impaired categories of golf, bowling, shuffleboard and horseshoes.
“I was at the Palo Alto Blind Center seven years ago when one of the coaches, recreational therapist director Cathy Kelly, told me about the Golden Age Games,” said Trevino, whose guide dog is a yellow Labrador named “Thorn.” Once an avid golfer, Trevino began competing in the games. “Since I had golfed before, they suggested I try that. At first there wasn’t a visually impaired category for golf, so I competed with the sighted golfers, and I won a gold medal one year. My biggest advantage is that I can hit the ball straight!” he said.
This year Trevino, a retired jeweler who served in the Army during the Korean War, competed in visually impaired categories and won four medals: gold in bowling, gold in shuffleboard, silver in golf, and silver in horseshoes. Winning medals in four events is a feat no other visually impaired athlete has accomplished in the Golden Age Games, per Trevino. “I had no practice, but I’m happy with all my games,” he said.
Trevino’s friend at the Yountville Veterans Home, former Navy Sea Bee and retired Oakland high school principal Don Smith, heard about the Golden Age Games from SFVAMC’s Visually Impaired Services Team (VIST) coordinator Lila Jaffray. His guide dog is a black Labrador named “Nate.”
Smith had perfect vision until developing glaucoma at age 40, but that’s never stopped him from leading an active life. His mind is sharp as he explains, “I see people in a lot worse shape than I am. I’m the go-to person for visually impaired people at the Veteran’s home. I have just been elected Vice President, Blinded Veterans Association, Northern California Region, and was voted Shasta County Citizen of the Year for fundraising. I love helping people.” Smith, who ventured to the Golden Age Games for the first time this year, won a bronze medal in shuffleboard. He says of his friend, Trevino, “We both walk a lot. Since the games now we’re really active – charging about having fun.”
Smith said he would like more Veterans to know about the Golden Age Games. “The object of the games is to encourage older Vets to be active,” he explained, “So we need more people to know about this program.” Having a background in fundraising, Smith said he hopes to promote some fundraising activities to enable more Veterans to be part of their team for next year’s Golden Age Games in Buffalo, New York.
“It was a cooperative effort in putting together this year’s team,” said VIST coordinator Jaffray. “SFVAMC’s Voluntary Service helped with funding for our transportation and lodging, and we joined with recreational therapist Cathy Kelly and Menlo Park VA’s team in traveling to the event. Next year we hope to have more Veterans attend.” Per Jaffray there are over 400 visually impaired Veterans in SFVAMC’s cachement area, from San Bruno to Eureka, from California to the Oregon border. “VIST supports groups in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, and Yountville. We also work with Blind Rehabilitation Specialist Lovell Pratcher at the Intermediate Low Vision Clinic in Ukiah,” she added.
So for now, the Nor-Cal Dinos rule. “The Nor-Cal Dinos, we’re old, but not extinct!” said Trevino. Jaffray displays a drawing created by Ron Andrini showing a velociraptor running, pushing a wheeled walker, captioned, “Do Nor-Cal Dinos rule? You bet Jurassic we do!”