Photo by Doug Cook.
Originally Published: December 23, 2015 6 a.m.
PRESCOTT - Senior volleyball players Ginger Rhodes and George Hedge of Prescott crave much more than occasional exercise to stay physically fit.
And it's not just because they have remained energetic and mentally sharp their entire lives. They are tough for their age, and their refusal to surrender to Father Time places them in rare company.
"It's good for your head (too) - to keep up with the younger people - and having the camaraderie of the group," Hedge said of the benefits, other than physical fitness, of playing senior volleyball. "There are mental, social and physical aspects."
Rhodes, 77, a native of northern California, got her start in rec league volleyball and city league softball after moving to Prescott in her early- to mid-20s.
Hedge, 76, who was born north of St. Louis, Missouri, grew up playing primarily baseball in post-World War II America before developing an affinity for volleyball while working overseas in Europe in the mid-1960s.
Fast-forward to 2015. Rhodes and Hedge are still involved in senior volleyball, locally and nationally. And they have the hardware to show for their efforts.
"We're both fortunate to still be able to play and be competing at the national level," Hedge said in a late-November interview from Grace Sparkes Activity Center in Prescott, where he and Rhodes regularly practice and play.
In October, Rhodes and Hedge traveled to the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, where they won medals on separate men's and women's teams in different sessions during the weeklong tournament.
In his first session in the 76-and-older bracket, Hedge won the national gold medal as a member of a team based in Portland, Oregon. He then garnered a bronze with a 73-and-older squad. Hedge was the lone player from Arizona.
Both Hedge and Rhodes have won senior national medals in the past, but their continued endurance is what's so impressive. They are among only a handful of local senior volleyball players ages 50 and older who venture out of town to compete.
Rhodes, who has a lengthy history as a northern Arizona resident, said she still works out twice a week with her husband in addition to the time she spends practicing and playing volleyball.
Rhodes has been an athlete for most of her life, although not in high school.
She played City League softball until her 60s, on both co-ed and women's teams. Rhodes also once competed in fast-pitch softball leagues as a second baseman when former longtime Arizona Amateur Softball Association (ASA) commissioner/Prescott Parks and Rec director A.C. Williams was in charge.
Rhodes subsequently played third base on slow-pitch teams with a 16-inch ball. She was on two state championship teams, including one in Prescott and one in Flagstaff in the 1970s.
All the while, Rhodes stayed true to volleyball, a sport she's played for at least 50 years, dating back to her rec league days in the early 1960s in Prescott.
One of the keys to Rhodes' remaining active has been broadening her experiences, particularly as a runner. When she turned 70, Rhodes ran the P.F. Chang's Rock & Roll Half Marathon in Phoenix. At 72, she ran in the annual boot race in downtown Prescott with her grandchildren.
Rhodes has accomplished a lot despite a bum left knee. The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in that knee is essentially split in two, she said, likely from hitting the floor so many times during volleyball matches. But the knee doesn't swell, and she has endured without surgery.
After a few career stops in different parts of the country as a medical school professor, Hedge eventually relocated to Prescott and retired here.
In his youth, Hedge played baseball and a few other sports in rural Missouri. He didn't play volleyball until the mid-1960s in Europe, where the sport had gained significant traction unlike in the U.S. at the time. In 1968, Hedge would return to America and quit playing volleyball. He turned his attention to tennis and skiing instead.
Hedge didn't revisit volleyball until decades later, once it had become more popular in America. One day in the early 2000s he recalls strolling into Sparkes Activity Center off East Gurley Street, where he heard people playing in the gym.
It didn't take him long to get the hang of volleyball again, and soon the senior game came calling. Since 2004, Hedge has played outside hitter, although he was a libero (defensive player) on his Huntsman gold-medal team. Rhodes, a setter, says Hedge is one of the top 10 senior men she's played against because "he hits hard and he moves."
"The game is basically the same (as it was in the 1960s)," Hedge said. "I got into tournaments in Prescott, Las Vegas, Tucson and the (Senior Olympic) state games."
Chris Freeman of Denver, a longtime friend of Hedge and Rhodes' who used to live in Prescott, got Hedge interested in the Huntsman Games - one of three national tournaments for senior volleyball players.
The Huntsman family of Utah inaugurated its games some three decades ago to encourage seniors over 50 to stay physically fit and active. These games have a staff that works year-round.
"Huntsman is by far the best (of the three senior nationals)," Hedge said. "It's a great tournament."
The 2016 Prescott Senior Olympic Games' volleyball tournament is scheduled for Aug. 13 and 14 at Prescott High School and Yavapai College.
Men's and women's tournaments as well as a co-ed tourney are planned for that weekend, which local Patty Enders and Hedge organize in a partnership with Prescott Parks and Rec. Some 40 teams compete in the Prescott Senior Olympic volleyball tourney each year, Hedge said.
But first, Hedge will head to the U.S. Open in Orlando in May to play with essentially the same team that won gold at the Huntsman Games. (Rhodes plans to attend one national tourney in 2016 - the Huntsman.)
In the meantime, you are likely to find either Hedge or Rhodes practicing their sets and hits on weekday mornings at Sparkes Activity Center.
To reach Doug, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 928-445-3333, ext. 2039. Follow him on Twitter: @dougout_dc