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State Games Popular With Many Athletes

June 05, 2005|From Associated Press

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Kathy Zimmerman started playing badminton when she was 8 and has competed at the sport's highest level, winning medals for the United States in two Pan American Games.

Retired for nearly five years, the 32-year-old Zimmerman tries to keep up with the sport she loves, but it's not as easy as it once was. She rarely travels to competitions any more from her home in Denver.

That's part of why she is looking forward to the biannual State Games of America. The talent level at the Olympic-style event might not be what she once was used to, but it's still a chance to bond with other badminton players and see where her sport is headed.

"I absolutely love it. You get to see the people coming up, you get to meet the youngsters, the people who really are the core group of the people who play badminton," Zimmerman said. "The elite is really very small and you never get to meet many of those people, but this way you can meet the novices and talk to them about badminton and see how passionate they are about the same sport you are passionate about."

The games started in 1999 and last year included a half-million athletes in state games nationwide. This year's national event, July 28-31 at venues from Denver to Pueblo -- most in the Colorado Springs area -- is expected to draw up to 9,000 athletes, who will compete in 24 sports from bowling and foosball to soccer and figure skating.

The field is open to athletes who finished in the top three of their home state's games the past two years. The format was tweaked slightly this year so that all residents of the host state are eligible, which will give Colorado athletes a chance to see how they stack up against the rest of the country.

And they'll do it against opponents of similar age and skill level. Each sport at the State Games is broken into divisions, meaning the elite athletes will face the highest level of competition and the novices can compete without being worried about getting embarrassed.

"It's the weekend warrior as well as the elite athlete," said Tom Osborne, president and CEO of the Colorado Sports Corporation, which will run the event. "We have a U.S. figure skating champion signed up and it's 6 to 96 -- all the ages, all the skill levels. You'll have some of the best open players in the country playing against other open players from the rest of the country."

The list of state games alumni is impressive.

Kobe Bryant and Mike Mussina participated in Pennsylvania's Keystone State Games, Mike Tyson at New York's Empire State Games and skater Nancy Kerrigan in Massachusetts' Bay State Games. Hockey players Bill Guerin and Mike Richter also were former state games competitors, as were basketball players Wally Szcerbiak and Christian Laettner and multi-sport star Bo Jackson.

Among the elite-level athletes at this year's event will be archer Denise Shirk, 37, of Allentown, Pa.

Like Zimmerman, Shirk has competed at the highest level of her sport, winning this year's Keystone State Games and finishing the 2004 season ranked 14th in the country.

"I consider the state games a national shoot," Shirk said. "Whether this is your first time or you've been shooting for 12 or 15 years, you win your state games you deserve the right to go out and compete. You get all these people together in one place, I consider that a national shoot."

Besides, it will be fun. Whether it's someone who just missed out on the Olympic team such as Zimmerman or someone who's never competed outside his home state, being on a national stage is a thrill for anyone.

"Anytime you can be part of a big thing like that with opening ceremonies and things like that, it's neat," Zimmerman said. "You get to ask them about it, tell them your stories. It's fun, a big social event, and you get to feel important for a day."

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