- BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee has been a sponsor of the Tennessee Senior Olympics for 40 years.
- BlueCross has provided financial support and volunteers for the annual state finals, and we established the Hall of Fame program in 2017.
Each year since 1981, Tennessee’s top senior athletes have come together to take part in the state’s Senior Olympics. They test their strength and skills, and enjoy some friendly competition. And while the games encourage seniors to stay active, they also provide social opportunities, improving their overall wellbeing.
This year, the Tennessee Senior Olympics is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and BlueCross has supported the program since the beginning. We spoke with Traci Meador, the games’ assistant executive director, and Christine Dewbre, its executive director, to get an inside look at the program and the partnership with BlueCross.
The spirit of competition
The Tennessee Senior Olympics are open to athletes age 50 and over. The games consist of 10 district events held each fall in Memphis, Martin, Jackson, Franklin, Crossville, Lawrenceburg, Chattanooga, Cleveland, Gatlinburg and Johnson City.
The program grew out of an initial gathering at Montgomery Bell State Park with activities like balloon tosses and races. Today, athletes participate in 20 sports, including basketball, swimming, bowling, tennis, cycling, track and field, horseshoes, and pickleball.
Each summer, the district games are followed by state finals in Williamson County. During these events, athletes compete for a chance to represent Tennessee in the national games. Hosted at different sports venues throughout the county, the finals welcome between 1,400 and 1,800 athletes from across the state every year.
“All skill levels are welcome and each year brings beginners, former athletes and every level in between,” Christine says. “Competitors are divided into five-year age groups (70-74, for example), so they can compete with their peers.”
Athletes in a class of their own
The competitors inspire event organizers and spectators with their kindness, their passion and their spirit. And for Christine and Traci, getting to witness this firsthand is the best part of their jobs.
“Our athletes are amazing for many reasons. Not only for their abilities in their sports, but also for their life experiences: careers, the military, community service and so much more,” Traci says.
Christine adds, “My favorite part of being involved in the games is absolutely getting to know, watch and cheer on the amazing athletes. Each year, I walk away inspired by what I have witnessed – from a 102-year-old throwing a discus to the joy on a beginner’s face as he or she completes their first event.”
“We’ve also seen so many transformations and comebacks from cardiac rehab, chemo and other medical challenges. We love hearing about participants who feel better, stronger and younger.”
So, there’s no shortage of moving stories.
Traci says, “We had one athlete who received a medal and a pat on the back. He said, ‘Thank you so much for the medal, but most of all for the pat on the back. I haven’t had a hug in a very long time.’ My heart smiled, and it reminded me that the Tennessee Senior Olympics is so much more than a sporting competition. It’s where people form friendships and escape loneliness.”
Christine adds, “A female athlete who’s now in her early 80s struggled with multiple sclerosis for 25 years – she had to use a walker and a motorized scooter. A neighbor encouraged her to join a gym and she started walking and gaining strength. Then someone at the gym told her about the Senior Olympics. She joined us in 2011 and ‘threw her walker away.’ Actually, she now uses it to hang her medals.”
“We have had romances – we even held a wedding at the athlete party in 2004. And of course, we have so many wonderful stories from the athletes in the 90+ age divisions, including our oldest athlete, 100-year-old Hollyce Kirkland . She competes in all of the track and swimming events.”
Partners for the long run
While BlueCross has been a partner with the games from the beginning, the sponsorship has evolved and grown over the years. We provided t-shirts for the very first games, but in recent years, we’ve provided financial and public relations support, including professional photography.
“Every single year for the past 40 years, BlueCross has been a partner with us — a partner we don’t take for granted,” Christine says.
Volunteer support is a major component of the current sponsorship. For the finals, vans bring TeamBlue volunteers from Chattanooga to Williamson County. They help fold 1,800 t-shirts, stuff packets, and even participate in the events by helping score and call volleyball lines, measuring field event throws and serving as back-up timers for the swimming events.
BlueCross employee Lisa Wright, who travels the state to educate members about Medicare plan options, has been involved with the program since 2009, serving on the board and helping to coordinate TeamBlue volunteer participation for the state finals.
“Finding volunteers for the Tennessee Senior Olympics has always been an easy task,” she says. “It’s a favorite event with our employees, and returning volunteers quickly fill up available slots, leaving a waiting list.”
BlueCross was also instrumental in establishing the Tennessee Senior Olympics Hall of Fame program in 2017. Each year, four outstanding Senior Olympians are inducted into the Hall of Fame and are celebrated with a ceremony, including awards, dinner and dancing, which is always a hit with attendees.
“There are so many worthy nominees every year, and the Hall of Fame committee faces difficult decisions,” Christine says. “We consider athletic achievement, sportsmanship and service to the Tennessee Senior Olympics.”
“BlueCross provides the awards and event support, making it possible for us to put on a first-class induction ceremony for these worthy individuals,” she adds.
As part of her role with the organization, Lisa also serves as the emcee for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “These athletes inspire me with their energy, agility and mindfulness. I’m thankful to work for a company that promotes healthy lifestyles for Tennesseans of all ages by sponsoring events like the Senior Olympics,” she says.
An extraordinary year
Like other event-focused organizations, the Tennessee Senior Olympics has been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The June state finals were postponed, which left many athletes and organizers, including Traci and Christine, feeling the absence.
“This has been the most difficult year we’ve ever experienced,” Christine says. “As you can imagine, our normal set-up with 1,800 adults aged 50+ and multiple venues just wasn’t feasible.”
Traci adds, “For many years, our springs and summers have been busy planning and preparing to greet our athletes and share in the experience of watching them compete. On a personal level, our lives didn’t feel quite right.”
Still, the team is looking forward, and they’re cautiously optimistic that finals might still be held later this year.
“We continue to plan creatively and adapt,” Christine says. “We hope to offer may of our sports in late September. We’ll spread the schedule out so only one age group competes at a time, allowing our events to comply with size restrictions for gatherings.”
A family affair
Aside from the athletes, Traci and Christine are both fond of what they affectionately call their “TSO Family.” The organization is made up of a small but mighty team of employees and dedicated volunteers, some of whom have been helping with events for 15 to 25 years.
“It takes a small army and over 3,000 hours from event staff and volunteers to pull off the state finals,” Christine says. “It’s simply a joy when we get together.”
Traci echoes that sentiment. “I ditto what she said,” she laughs.
“We consider our BlueCross partners and volunteers part of this family, and we know that without them, there would be no program. Thank you to BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee for all your tremendous support over the past 40 years.”
For a look back at the Tennessee Senior Olympics, see the photo gallery below.
The images in this story were taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.