Joe Riccobene doesn't know his approximate Wii bowling average. He knows exactly what it is—268. And he knows he has bowled 27 perfect games. Not too shabby. You may never have heard of Joe's bowling team, the SAS Strikers from the St. Andrews Estates South retirement community in Boca Raton, Fla. But bowlers at scores of other retirement communities know about the Strikers. Joe, 75, has led the team to three straight national titles and has been individually honored as bowler of the year by the National Senior League (NSL).
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The NSL is the brainchild of Dennis Berkholtz. He sees the popular Nintendo Wii interactive gaming system as a godsend for older people, because it allows them to be physically active and engage in a socially enjoyable yet competitive team sport. Thanks to the Internet and online video tools, Berkholtz has been able to create a national bowling league, which now numbers about 150 teams.
During two 10-week league sessions, in the spring and fall, NSL teams are paired off each week. The teams separately bowl, submit scores to the league website, and check back later to see how they've fared against that week's opponent. It's all done on the honor system but there have been no problems to date, Berkholtz says. Teams with the best records qualify for championship play-offs. The finals are webcast in real time so the two teams can see each other as they compete.
"When we started this thing, we were going to webcam every match," he says. "But we ran six tests and they were all messed up for various reasons. There is very little IT savvy in these senior communities." It's also very hard to set specific times for events. Community residents have lots of competing activities—think of herding cats—and frequent off-site trips for medical care and other appointments.
Berkholtz, 65, has always been physically active, including being a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic handball team. Several years ago, his parents entered an assisted living community in Florida. "The facility was really nice but I was amazed at the lack of creativity in terms of keeping people active. It seemed to be pretty much just playing bingo and putting together puzzles." Of course, he acknowledges, "everything has changed" since then in terms of physical activities at retirement communities.
After playing different sports on Wii himself, Berkholtz became convinced that some of the Wii games, particularly bowling, would be big hits at senior communities. He raised a little bit of money to build the NSL website and in 2009 he launched the league. He'd like to expand from 150 to 1,500 teams, and include teams from around the world. Money is an issue. The $300 per-team fee for league play likely has deterred teams from entering, he thinks, especially during the recession. Berkholtz is seeking larger organizations to sponsor teams and support wider participation.
At St. Andrews, Riccobene was already very active in community activities and has a formidable competitive streak. He was already playing a number of other sports games with the residents who would anchor the community's Wii bowling team. "During the regular season, we bowl one hour on Monday, two hours on Wednesday, and two hours on Thursday afternoon," he says. He is the youngest starter on the team. The other three starters are 81, 88, and 89 years old.
Team coach Oris Martin, the fitness director at St. Andrews Estates South, says the Wii activities are good for physical exercise but also have helped enhance the eye-hand coordination of the bowlers. While there are many Wii games, bowling has proven to be the most popular. "A lot of people can play at the same time," she explains.
Susan George, the community's executive director, says Wii bowling is just one example of seniors' willingness to try new things. George says she recently celebrated a birthday. When Duane Webster, one of the Wii bowlers, heard that she had always wanted to go skydiving, he invited her to come along on his birthday. So, the two of them went skydiving together. George was turning 40; Webster was 88.