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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
For Colleen Burns, this is only the beginning.
The 69-year-old Albuquerque native carried the torch Saturday evening during the lighting ceremony for the 2019 National Senior Games. She will now go on to compete in 10 events in track and swimming.
Burns, who lives east of the mountains in McIntosh, called it “an honor” to be part of the opening festivities.
“It was humbling for them to ask me,” she said.
The ceremony officially starting the games went off without a hitch despite the torch flame going out a few times between runners, some early rain and lingering clouds over Civic Plaza.
A huge crowd of athletes, their families and visitors watched on a jumbo screen as the torch arrived in Albuquerque by way of the Rail Runner commuter train before being relayed through the streets of Downtown, at last ending up in the hands of longtime city councilor Brad Winter.
Winter, a competitor in the Games, took the torch down the homestretch, lighting the ceremonial cauldron to cheers before the singing of the national anthem.
The day was years in the making. It began in 2015 when the Duke City threw its hat into the ring to host the event and was selected a year later after a lengthy bidding process.
Held every two years since 1987, the National Senior Games is the largest multi-sport event in the world in which athletes 50 and older can qualify. This year, nearly 14,000 athletes are participating – an all-time record – and the event is expected to bring in 25,000 non-competing visitors with an economic impact of $34 million.
Through June 25, competitors will go toe-to-toe in nearly two dozen sports, including swimming, track and field, softball, tennis, shuffleboard, archery, bowling, golf and cycling.
Adam and Katie Hillis are making a summer road trip out of the event.
The couple, along with their four children, drove from Virginia to cheer on their grandfather, 74-year-old Thomas Emnett, as he competes in four swimming events.
“I told a friend of mine, ‘The guys I’m swimming against are going to be down and back before I even finish my dive in,’ ” Emnett said with a laugh.
His family lightly chided him for the self-deprecation.
“It’s about doing something awesome – setting a good example for these grandchildren,” Adam Hillis said, looking at the kids zooming around their legs.
Katie Hillis said she didn’t know much about the games until recently but is excited as ever to watch her dad swim. For Emnett, he said it’s not about winning.
“You’ve already won just being in it,” he said. “The medals are secondary. It’s just being active.”
Burns knows a thing or two about being active. This is her 10th Senior Games since she competed 20 years ago in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
In that time, she has won numerous medals – she can’t remember how many offhand – and set several records, including the 74-second mark in the 400 meter dash at the last Senior Games in Alabama.
She’s approaching this year modestly.
“I don’t have any premonitions that I’ll win gold,” Burns said. “If I do, that’s great, but there’s a lot of great competition coming in. It’s very competitive.”
The mother of three and grandmother of six has been running all her life – starting to and from Manzano High School as a girl and breaking the records her sister would set in gym class. Decades later, it’s hard to say whether she has slowed any.
“I probably need to go to a mental health center,” she said with a laugh.
Her favorite of the 10 events? The 200-meter dash.
“I love the curve. I love the air coming by you and it slingshots you home,” Burns said. “It’s not my best event, but I love it. I love going fast, I like the way it feels.”
Though some could argue she’s a rare specimen of fitness, Burns encourages anyone and everyone to get involved in the Games.
“I think sometimes people think ‘I have to be really good,’ or whatever, but it’s camaraderie, it’s having fun, it’s getting out of the house, it’s enjoying each other,” she said.
When asked what her secret was to a long and active life, Burns said the lyrics of a song came to mind: I wanna live until I’m too old to die young.
“In my mind, I don’t feel old. I don’t know when I’m going to be old,” she said. “Because as long as you keep moving and keep your body going, you won’t be old. Your mind will stay fresh.”