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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Huntsman World /Senior Games turns 30 this October

Jon Huntsman Sr.’s vision of creating an event that would attract hundreds of seniors to Southern Utah annually to engage in competition with each other in what he named the World Senior Games has become, over three decades, likely the most successful event of its kind in …well…the world.

Fulfillment of the prominent Utah businessman-philanthropist’s conviction that seniors could be lured to a remote but appealing corner of the West to demonstrate that their competitiveness remained strong despite advancing years will be played out again this fall for the 30th time.

Thus the City of St. George, along with officials and volunteers of the event itself, prepare to entertain almost 11,000 seniors during the first two weeks of October with athletes from every state and many nations. In fact, as Michelle Graves, Director of Sponsor Relations for the Games, emailed me: “Our goal this year is to host 10,950 athletes, which is the number of days in 30 years,” a goal only 400 ahead of the participant total for last year. “We also hope to host 30 nations, one for each year.”

I am registered again this October to be among the competitor in the 100 meters, against other “old guys” of my age (competition in all events is on the basis of five-year increments, as in 50-54 on up). But in addition to track and field, others of the thousands on hand will be participating in events ranging from archery, badminton and basketball to cycling, tennis, swimming and softballr.

The appellation “World” that Huntsman’s marketing acumen attached to the games’ name has, without doubt, been a key attraction for seniors willing to travel to a spot that you don’t get to easily so they can have the satisfaction of competing with the best of peers of their age.

I don’t know whether the intent of Huntsman and his wife, Karen, in their commitment to these games was because of the goodwill it has obviously fostered or economic development for the picturesque region known as “Color Country,” or “Red Rock Country.”

But the fact is both have occurred. The population of St. George was about 25,000 when the games were first held and has now grown to more than three times that at just over 80,000.

As long-time readers of the Harp are likely aware, participating in these games has held an appeal for me since I first learned of them in 2002, wanted to be a part of something called “World” games,  and came to run in the 100 meters and 200 meter events a year later, to my surprise finishing sixth in the 100.

It’s what attracted me back in 2011 after colon cancer surgery, needing to prove something to myself, and was amazed to finish third in the 100 meters in the 70-74 group. And again last year, when I finished second in 75-79 100-meter runners.

These games are a success story that Huntsman himself, now 79, probably couldn’t have envisioned. And except for those aware of Huntsman’s life of giving and caring, people might well be surprised that a multibillionaire who was in the process of building the world’s largest chemical company of its kind and developing a noted cancer hospital in Salt Lake City would have the time or interest to worry about it.

This Harp is, in fact, as much about a regard I have for Huntsman, whom I have never met, as the regard I have held for more than a dozen years for the annual gathering of senior athletes he has been committed to fostering and supporting, making it possible for me and others to test ourselves in peer competition.

A person like Huntsman is particularly important at a time when anger and hostility seem to have become what too many people bring to interactions with each other, rather than goodwill and regard.

Huntsman, a leader in his Mormon church, is a two-time cancer survivor who founded an institute with the goal of curing the disease and dispenses his substantial wealth to an array of causes, in addition to having taken the Giving Pledge, the promise taken by the world’s richest people to give away more than half of their wealth.

Huntsman’s philanthropic giving now exceeds $1.2 billion but he suggests he has a long way to go since his stated intent is to give all his wealth away.

Huntsman is wont to sum up his view of the non-giving wealthy thusly: "The people I particularly dislike are those who say 'I'm going to leave it in my will.' What they're really saying is 'If I could live forever, I wouldn't give any of it away.'

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Jon Huntsman's Senior Games dream 25 years on

Jon Huntsman Sr.'s vision was that an event called the World Senior Games, even if held in a remote corner of Southwest Utah, would eventually draw thousands of what others might dismiss as the elderly for the chance to recreate and compete with their peers.

So it is that 25 years after their founding that the games this year will attract about 10,000 seniors who, over the next two weeks, will compete in everything from track and field to badminton, pickelball, lawn bowling, volleyball, square dancing and even bridge. Some of the competitors are in their 90s.

john and karen huntsman
Jon and Karen Hunstman from Games website

The event, under Huntsman's fathering, has grown over its quarter century into a major tourism attraction in Southern Utah and thus a major opportunity to expose the now rapidly growing city of St. George during its most appealing fall season. You can't drive far beyond the red rock mesas, what is referred to locally as "color country," that edge the city without encountering the aspens that by early October stretch north and east toward various national and state parks.

I've been drawn to the games because of the "world" name since I first heard of them in 2003 and made up my mind to compete in the 100 and 200 meters in my age group once I learned that they weren't really world games. That means some competitors really were world class while others like me, who weren't, could still compete, and that's always been the magic draw.

In that 2003 competition, I managed to finish sixth in both the 100 and 200 out of fields of 24 in each event. But the reality was that those at the front of the pack in both events were, in fact, world class and thus it was satisfying just to be in the same race in which I could see them in the distance.

The two guys way out ahead that day were a Southern California pharmacist named Gary Sims, who had never run competitively until he was 50, and John Ross, a professor at the University of Edinburgh who was European champion in both events earlier that same year. They've been dueling it out each year since. Sims holds the meet record for both the 100 and 200 in the 70-74 age group and Ross the meet record for the 100 in the 60-64 age group.

I'm entered as a competitor in the games again this year in the 100 meters for the 70-74 age group and will be looking forward to seeing Sims and Ross in the distance ahead of me as the race unfolds, a bit of familiarity that's important since age brings brushes with the unfamiliar as part of its baggage

There's a special import for me with this year's trip to St. George in that it's an outgrowth of my new-found commitment to do today what I might yesterday have put off until tomorrow. Successful recovery from colon cancer surgery in late May while various friends are battling the disease, or have lost their battles, prompts my new "do it today" mantra.

The games were actually founded by a dreamer named John Morgan Jr. who envisioned and named the games.

 Two years later, Huntsman, founder and CEO of what would eventually be the world's largest chemicals company, caught the vision of the event's potential for the region and the state. Thus he and his wife, Karen, became the major sponsor of what has ever since been the Huntsman World Senior Games.

The visitors the event has attracted each fall may well have had at least something to do with the dramatic growth of the area, with St, George becoming one of the nation's fastest growing metropolitan areas from 1990 on, now with a population of 75,000.

And in that growth and advances in the economy may be the lesson of Huntsman's vision that other states and regions might emulate.

Huntsman, 73, has stepped up to executive chairman of what is now a publicly traded (as of 2005) $9 billion world's largest chemicals company with 12,000 employees. But he and Karen still open each year's Senior Games event, where the participants now number in the thousands each October.

Huntsman is, of course, the father of the former Utah governor, China ambassador and a Republican presidential hopeful, Jon Huntsman Jr.

All of which brings me to the final point about the Jon and Karen Huntsman and their commitments to community in Utah.

It was after his surgery for prostate cancer some 15 years ago that Huntsman set out to establish a world-class cancer research and treatment center, a dream he's pleased to say is now realized with the Huntsman Cancer Institute and Hospital in Salt Lake City.

The Huntsman family continues to serve as principal benefactors and fundraisers for the Huntsman Cancer Institute with what he describes as "the ultimate goal" of eradicating the most challenging forms of cancer.

And it's on that final note about the Huntsmans' commitment to community and overcoming as great a challenge as cancer that I sense a common thread in their commitments and the commitments of those who travel to St. George each year to participate and compete.

The producer of a recent movie on the senior games said: "What drew us to the senior games was the positivity. These people have an unparalleled zeal for life. When you're 90 and 100 years old and have endured life's challenges and still have such a positive attitude, it's beyond impressive. We felt it was worth a film."

In a sense the producer summed up in his way what's become my view: Life is a race to be appreciated for the joy of participation and whether world class -- or a bit slower --making in to the finish line ahead of cancer, or any other physical or mental obstacle, is really the sweetest race to win.

 

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