On the Saturday before Thanksgiving 2015, I stood in a field in DeLeon Springs, Florida, chatting with Sifu Bob Messinger. Bob will be the head official for the inaugural Senior Games tai chi tournament, and we noted the large number of people who had turned out for a weekend push hands retreat.
Pairs of tai chi aficionados were scattered all over this large open area that led down toward a lake. They were male and female, and they ranged in ages from their 20s to their 80s. In “tai chi age,” there were some very new beginners to tai chi and very advanced players. There was a remarkable absence of ego: Beginners were learning from masters while masters were enjoying the chance to touch with other masters.
“I like this atmosphere,” Bob said.
I agreed. “This is the kind of atmosphere I’d like to see in Clearwater (at the Senior Games),” I said. “If we can have camaraderie and collaboration like this at a tournament, that would make me really happy.”
I competed in my first tai chi tournament a couple of years ago. It was a huge event and very well run, but every conceivable Chinese martial art form was represented, and most of the participants resembled the kids I did karate with several decades ago when I was young enough to think getting kicked was fun.
Relatively few looked much like me and my friends. And while I enjoyed spending the day there, I left wondering if there were any tournaments that would give me more opportunities to socialize, network and learn with my peers.
I have never been a particularly competitive person, but when I find an activity valuable, I like to do it well. I have often found that if you want to do well as an individual, you need help from others. Sometimes those other people are teachers, but if you really want to grow, you need to work alongside others who share your interest.
As a guitar player, for instance, I took lessons from a teacher and I sit alone and practiced. But only when I started playing with other musicians and getting in front of an audience did I really understand what music was about. As a triathlete, I logged many hours running, biking and swimming. Entering a race gave that effort a purpose and introduced me to training partners. So why not do the same with tai chi?
When I was a journalist writing features for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, I had interviewed people who were preparing to compete in the Florida Senior Games, and they all seemed to have the attitude I hoped for: They had a passion for a physical activity – anything from ballroom dancing to powerlifting – and they saw the Senior Games as a focus for that passion.
Surely, I thought, the Senior Games included tai chi in its roster of events. But it didn’t – apparently no one had asked for it. So, with emotional support from people like Bob annd other Sifus, I made the suggestion. The Florida Sports Foundation, specifically senior vice president Stephen Rodriguez, liked the idea and encouraged me to move forward.
And so here we are, with the date of the first Florida Senior Games tai chi tournament quickly approaching. In order to do this, we had to create a governing body, one that would bring rules and regulations to the event in Clearwater, along with officials and volunteers.
Rather than try to re-invent the wheel, we started with models that were already out there, including Taiwan’s (ROC) governing rules, adapting them as needed. We also started out offering competition in forms that seemed likeliest to give the largest number of people a category for competition, along with fixed-step push hands, which is the most common and safest form.
However, we also put in “other forms” categories and have opened this year’s event up to people who want to demonstrate other styles and approaches. We are hoping to draw a lot of people who have an interest in tai chi or have just started practicing and to give them a chance to see what’s available.
Saying “tai chi” is a lot like saying “music.” Many, many different things fall under that heading and each has its own appeal. My hope is that what we do this year will bring together a tai chi community; as we move forward into the next year, that community will define the nature of tai chi as it appears in the Senior Games.
If all goes well in December, we will start meeting the people who organize the regional Senior Games. There are about 20 local/regional senior games, and we hope to begin lining up regional directors to work with the local organizers. Ideally, the lineup of events offered in future state games will grow organically out of the local events.
Because of studies showing the health benefits of tai chi and grant funding from agencies like the Center for Disease Control for tai chi as a fall prevention intervention, our art is getting more attention than ever. Often, this attention comes in the form of a program like Tai Chi for Arthritis, Tai Chi Easy or Moving For Better Balance.
I feel these programs can be an entryway into tai chi practice. Unfortunately, many older adults are led to the gate but never shown the garden on the other side. Hopefully, having tai chi in the senior games will encourage more people to move through the gateway and onto the garden path.
I hope you will support us this year with your presence, as a participant, a volunteer or a spectator. I look forward to seeing you in Clearwater on December 3.