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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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This Book of Mormon has two real-life heroes who impacted me, and society

You might call this column my personal version of the Book of Mormon, a tale with two heroes, like the musical satire of that name making the rounds of theaters across the country. But this is the story of two real-life heroes whose separate impacts on society, driven in large part by their Mormon faith, should make them each the subject for their own book or movie.

Jon Huntsman Sr. and Karen 
And both have left an impact on me. One, Gary Neeleman, is a lifelong friend who received unique recognition last week in his beloved Brazil for his life of focus on that nation and its citizens.

The other, Jon Huntsman Sr., whom I have never met but who has touched me for more than a decade, has again this year drawn me to the gathering of senior athletes that was his vision 
29 years ago when he began 
Gary and Rose Neeleman 
the World Senior Games as the globe's most impressive annual gathering of senior athletes. It will be my third trip to St. George, UT, to compete in the 100 meters.

I have previously written about both Neeleman and Huntsman, both longtime residents of Salt Lake City, who know each other, with Neeleman actually a close friend of Huntsman's son, Jon, who was Utah governor and for a brief time a GOP presidental hopeful.

So this column is somewhat a revisting of people long-time readers have met before. But I never apologize for repeat sharing of special people who have done special things.

Both men made major contributions to society, Neeleman to inter-American relations and Huntsman to medical science. 

It was as a result of his experience covering the 1963 Pan American Games and watching U.S. athletes play the role of "ugly Americans" in their treatment of Latin American teams they defeated, that he promised himself to someday do something about that. So when UPI sent him back home, he worked with Utah's coaches to create a college all-stars post-season tour of Latin America.
That tour, with Neeleman acting as scheduler, accommodations arranger and bag-boy for the basketball stars who relished the chance to participate, became an NCAA post-season fixture and Neeleman became a regular luncheon speaker at the NCAA tournament for years.

And for Huntsman, it was after his surgery for prostate cancer almost 20 years ago that prompted him to establish a world-class cancer research and treatment center, a dream 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.
So now to their roles in this column. First regarding Neeleman, who was honored last week at the main hall of the City of Sao Paulo as the fourth recipient of the Sao Paulo Citizen award, following the Pope, the Dalai Lahma and the founder of the Mormon Church in Brazil as the only other recipients of the honor. 
Neeleman's wife, Rose, and sons, David and Mark and a total of 14 family members including wives, grandkids and great grandkids were among those on hand for the ceremony. Neeleman recalled stories of his 61-year relationship with Brazil, more like a love affair with a nation and its people, beginning in 1954 when he arrived as a 20-year-old Mormon missionary.

It resumed in the early '60s when he brought his then new bride, Rose, with him as he arrived to be Brazil's manager for United Press International and has continued since then, including his three books that chronicle previously little-known aspects of the relations between what he refers to as "the two giants of the western hemisphere."

Three of his seven children were born in Brazil, including David, founder of Jet Blue now the founder and CEO of Azul, Brazil's second largest and fastest growing airline. Neeleman told the assembly that all of his children, 35 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren "were either born here, or are Brazilians at heart and are all proud to have Brazilian passports."

Gary and Rose travel to Brazil about three times a year and when they're not traveling on personal or client business, or traveling to the Brazilian back country as part of their research for his books, he's doing Brazil's business as honorary counsel in Salt Lake City.
My friendship with Neeleman, 81, extends back more than 40 years, beginning with our more than a decade as executives at UPI. And my children still recall his dramatic reading of "Horton the Elephant" one evening years ago as they were tucking into bed.
Now to Huntsman, 78, about whom I will be having good thoughts next week and would love to meet, when he and Karen will be on hand for the opening of the two-week gathering where nearly 10,000 seniors will compete in everything from track and field to badminton, pickleball, lawn bowling, volleyball, square dancing and even bridge. Some of the participants are in their 90s.

Huntsman's vision back in 1987 was that an event called the World Senior Games, even if held in a then-remote corner of Southwest Utah, would eventually draw thousands of what some might dismiss as "the elderly" who come for the chance for recreation and to compete with their peers.

While the Huntsmans' close ties to the games remain, he turned over the CEO role a few years ago to Kyle Case, whose career involvement with the Senior Games extends back to when he served as an intern while a student at Southern Utah University.

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 games that required world-class talent. 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 event, as a 63 year old competing in the 60-64 age group, 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.

I returned in 2011 to prove to myself I could come back from the surgery for colon cancer that I underwent in late May that year.
The goal wasn't merely to prove that a 71-year-old guy can come back from major surgery and resume normal activity, even if the "normal" activity seems like a stretch to the sedentary of any age. It was also to acknowledge successful recovery from cancer while various friends are battling the Big-C, or have lost their battles.
Performing well at those 2011 anniversary games had become a single-minded focus that August and September following a required two-month recovery period without strenuous exercise. And so I proudly displayed, on my return, the Bronze medal I won for finishing third in my race.
So having turned 75, the appeal to return to St. George again to see how I can fare in the 75-79 group won out.

I closed a column three years ago on that 2011 experience thusly: 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 while leaving behind cancer, or any other physical or mental obstacle, is really the sweetest race to win.
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'Do today' mantra guided decision to compete after cancer surgery

It was my new mantra of "do today what yesterday you might have put off until tomorrow" that guided my decision to compete in the 2011 Huntsman World Senior Games last October, four months after colon-cancer surgery.

 

The goal wasn't merely to prove that a 71-year-old guy can come back from major surgery and resume normal activity, even if the activity seems like a stretch to the sedentary of any age. It was also to acknowlege successful recovery from cancer while various friends are battling the Big-C, or have lost their battles.

 

There's a prescribed two-month "no strenuous exercise" recovery period following the kind of major surgery that was required for me last week of May last year.

 

I walked as much as possible during the weeks following surgery, but chafed at the fact my regular workouts on the treadmill and track, particularly the sprint portions, were on hold until the last week of July.

 

Just before the exercise-restraint period ended, I visited with my primary-care physician, Patrizia Showell, at Seattle's Polyclinic and asked: "So are you okay with my now working my tail off so I can run the 100 meters in the senior games first week of October?"

 

I could see the lady I refer to as my "super doc" mentally calculating the calendar before replying: "Go for it."

 

Putting on my workout shoes for the first time in two months brought an adrenalin rush but I knew I was going to have to be uncharacteristically cautious with my leg muscles, particularly the hamstrings that had always caused me trouble. The worst thing I could imagine at that point was that I would press too hard and pull or strain a hamstring and that would be the end of the goal.

 

The 2011 Huntsman World Senior Games had a special appeal to me because it was the 25th anniversary of the two-week event created by Jon Huntsman Sr., in 1986. What could make the competitive comeback more special than it being for a special milestone for the games themselves?

 

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 play and compete with their peers.

 

So it is that 25 years after their founding, the 2011 games attracted about 6,000 seniors who, over the two-week period, competed in everything from track and field to badminton, pickelball, lawn bowling, volleyball, square dancing and even bridge. Some of the competitors were in their 90s.

 

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 you didn't have to be a "world class" athlete. 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.

 

Huntsman, 73, founded and was longtime CEO, now executive chairman, of what has become the publicly traded (as of 2005) $9 billion world's largest chemicals company with 12,000 employees. He and his wife, Karen, still open each year's Senior Games, where the participants now number in the thousands each October.

 

Huntsman, father of the former Utah governor, China ambassador and briefly a Republican presidential hopeful, Jon Huntsman Jr., evidenced his ultimate commitment to community following prostate cancer surgery 15 years ago.

 

He 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.

 

So in recent days a year-later clean bill of health on last year's cancer sets the stage for my few-days-hence prostate cancer surgery, as Jon Huntsman Sr. underwent those years ago. Then I can begin to tick off the "no strenuous exercise" weeks, which my surgeon tells me will be a shorter wait this time, before I can begin getting back into condition for the 2012 games.

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