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A Wii Bounce in Seniors' Steps
Video Game Sports Tourney Helps Md. Competitors Stay Fit, Engaged

By Megan Greenwell and Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 31, 2008

Murray Fox had just won second place in a Nintendo Wii video game bowling tournament in Wheaton when a friend issued his next challenge:

"You can beat the old guys, but can you beat your grandson?" the friend asked, laughing as Fox clutched his prize, a $20 gift card to Target.

Fox is 81, and his performance yesterday came against a group of fellow senior citizens, some of the most eager new video gamers. Most had heard their grandchildren rave about Wii Sports, which includes bowling, golf, tennis and boxing. Some were reliving their glory days as championship athletes.

A quarter of Americans older than 50 played video games last year, up from 9 percent in 1999, according to an industry trade group. The increase is attributable mostly to the Wii, a console that relies on players making motions rather than pushing buttons on a controller. The system has become wildly popular in retirement homes and senior centers, where it brings a form of gentle, low-impact exercise to people whose movement might be limited by injury or illness.

"These are people with enough motivation to still really participate in life," said Carol Fuentevilla, director of the Holiday Park Senior Center, where yesterday's tournament was held. "I'm convinced staying engaged keeps you out of the nursing home one day longer. It doesn't matter what it is."

The Holiday Park tournament was one of four Wii events being held across Montgomery County, with the top two winners in golf and bowling advancing to a countywide senior Wii championship June 26.

As the tournament began, some curious seniors peeked in before their fitness class, and others stopped by after tai chi. Program organizers implored everyone to try at least once. The room quickly grew rowdy, with about a dozen spectators cheering their friends and teasing bad shots.

"I'm losing!" Ethel Waltzer, 75, groaned as her competitor scored two quick points against her in tennis. "I'm terrible!"

After a stunning comeback, someone told Waltzer that she had won the game.

"I won?" she asked. "No kidding? I didn't think I was any good!"

Later, Evelyn Schwartz, 71, of Olney fought to keep her hook in check while bowling. Even in a bowling alley, she said, she has a tendency to hook the bowling ball to the left, sending it perilously close to the gutter. It was the same with Wii, she said.

Still, "it made me laugh and enjoy myself, so what's wrong with that?" Schwartz said.

For Jianwen Zhang, 59, who took the top prize yesterday in golf and bowling, the competition represented an early foray into American social life. Zhang moved from China to Rockville nine months ago to help look after her 4-year-old grandson. She speaks almost no English, so she spends most days alone at home caring for the child and studying Buddhism.

"This is something she knows how to play, and it doesn't require much language to communicate," said Zhang's daughter Rae Wu, 33, who took days off from her job at the Montgomery County Board of Elections to bring her mother to the Wii practice session and the tournament. "It's something she's good at. I want her to enjoy the more fun part of life."

Zhang, a retired accountant, had been practicing for the past month or so at home, where the family plays Wii together. Her grandson usually triumphs in golf, but Zhang almost always wins in bowling, one of her favorite pastimes in China. She is so hooked on Wii, her daughter said, that she plays at least 30 minutes on weekdays and an hour on weekends.

"She wants to use it as exercise and for a sense of accomplishment," Wu said, translating for her mother.

Trish Walsh, the Wii tournament coordinator for Montgomery's recreation department, said staff members were surprised by how popular Wii had become at the county's four senior centers. Her next goal is to create a Wii bowling league with a team from each senior center facing off.

Walsh spent most of the morning yesterday teaching newer players the techniques of the game, showing them when to swing their arms to swing the tennis racket and the moment to let go of the virtual bowling ball. In between, she served as head cheerleader, clapping wildly for a strike or an ace.

Felicia Taylor-Lewis, 72, who lost to Zhang yesterday in tennis, struggled with the game during a practice session. She said she was treating the game too much like real tennis, running around the floor even though the Wii character moved automatically and all she needed to do was swing her arm. "Stay!" she commanded herself as the ball flew toward her animated character.

Taylor-Lewis was a high school tennis star, but she was forced to quit a few years ago because of asthma. She manages to stay fit, though, attending aerobic and muscle toning classes when she's not traveling the world to watch Grand Slam tennis championships.

One of the advantages of playing Wii sports is that people with different ability levels can participate. At a practice session held at Holiday Park this month, 70-year-old Ed Condon played tennis while sitting on his three-wheeled scooter. He had been riding down the hall when he heard the familiar "thwock" of a tennis ball coming from the flat-screen television, so he stopped in to play.

"I came to see what it's like," said Condon, a travel agent who retired from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "All the kids are talking about it. The teens love this type of stuff. . . . I've read that this is good for old people, of which I qualify."

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