They come from around the world. From Russia, Japan, Australia, and every state in America, more than 11,000 senior athletes converge in Utah to participate in the Huntsman World Senior Games, an annual international athletic competition for men and women age 50 and up.
For more than 30 years, senior athletes competing in the games have found themselves in the capable hands of student volunteers from Brigham Young University.
Over two weeks in October, 92 BYU students donated 4,600 hours to conduct more than 2,500 health screenings on senior athletes from 30 countries and every state in America.
The volunteering tradition began with Dr. Steven Heiner, a professor of health sciences at BYU who was a founding board member of the Huntsman World Senior Games. He believed the games would be a positive experience for participants and offer students a healthy example of active aging.
When Heiner first started offering basic health screenings, students met with athletes as they progressed through three small hotel rooms. As the games grew in popularity and quality, the health screenings did too.
Now, they fill up half a convention center and offer everything from blood pressure and carotid artery screening to balance and cognitive wellness checks. The screenings detect serious health threats like glaucoma, diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, decreased bone density, and breast or prostate cancer. The results are profound and potentially lifesaving.
Ron Hager, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise Eciences, took over for Heiner and has co-coordinated the health screenings with UVU nursing professor Gary Measom for the past 16 years.
“I do it because the students have a fantastic experience. . . . Their eyes are opened to what it means to be old and active as opposed to being old and in a nursing home,” he said. “It’s a wake-up call.”
Hager himself has competed in the games: “The year I turned 50 I thought, ‘I love tennis. I’m going to compete in tennis.’ I had an injury, a cracked rib, and still came away with the silver medal. It was pretty exciting.”
In addition to the screenings, faculty and students routinely conduct research at the games and publish findings in peer-reviewed journals.
Brent Feland, an associate professor of exercise sciences at BYU and Huntsman's 2018 golf silver-medalist, helps coordi-nate the health screenings. After receiving a grant from BYU's gerontology department, he and three BYU faculty members researched how foot structure and function change based on physical activity. "The games are an incredible opportunity to conduct research on older athletes,” Feland notes. “For a previous research project, I got almost 4,000 people tested. We still use the data.”
BYU student volunteer Taryn Corey and 13 other students worked with participants to record data that provides insight into the correlation between the type of shoe worn during physical activity (e.g., normal shoes versus minimalist shoes) and foot mobility. “Our booth tested foot structure and function,” Corey said. “We had two ultra-sound stations to see muscle size and stiffness, a balance station, toe-strength station, and an arch-height-measurement station. The subjects participated in the Department of Exercise Sciences research studies by rotating through each station.”
In addition to experience, BYU student volunteers can receive internship credit for their service. For Corey, volunteering proved to be one of the best experiences she's had at BYU: "I have loved working at the games. The coolest part of the experience for me has been seeing the things I learn in my classes actually be applied in real life. I felt like a true professional interacting with the athletes."