High hopes paid off last year for Ron Novak, a resident at Fianna Hills Nursing and Rehabilitation in Fort Smith. Novak “won more medals than anyone” at the 2017 Nursing Home Senior Olympics in Fort Smith, he said. “Nobody could beat me” in the wheelchair races.

Novak has entered maybe four of the competitions over the last six years, he said. Each year, he has had high hopes of winning.

Some years, he “has been skunked,” said Novak, the “competitor extraordinaire,” as Marian Conrad, executive director for Project Compassion, referred to him.

The 35th annual Nursing Home Senior Olympics will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 27 at the Fort Smith Convention Center, 800 Rogers Ave. in Fort Smith, said Conrad. The annual competition is open to residents of area nursing homes, Conrad said. Project Compassion services six counties, including Sebastian, Crawford, Franklin and Logan counties in Arkansas and LeFlore and Sequoyah counties in Oklahoma.

As area nursing home residents compete each year in the Nursing Home Senior Olympics, their “adrenaline is pumping and their eyes light up,” said Brenda Smith, social services director at Chapel Ridge Health and Rehabilitation Center in Fort Smith. “That’s a blessing to see.”

First place medals are awarded for each division, said Brooke Whitworth, activity/social director for Pink Bud Home For The Golden Years in Greenwood. Divisions are separated by gender and then by age — 70 and younger and older than 70, she said. All participants receive a medal as well.

Overall, Novak said he has won seven first place medals over the years. His medals hang in the therapy rooms as a reminder of the progress Novak has made.

The medals awarded are “pretty coveted,” Conrad said. Door prizes are also given. Door prize donations as well as financial donations can be made through the website, ProjectCompassionInc.com or by contacting Whitworth at (479) 996-4125.

While therapy is no longer a part of Novak’s daily recommended routine, he continues “to strive to get better,” he said.

Novak, 77, lost use of his legs about six years ago, he said. A host of other symptoms followed fairly quickly before a rare blood disorder was identified and corrected.

Given a week to 10 days to live, Novak “fooled them all,” he said. “I didn’t do it myself. The guy upstairs had a lot to do with it.”

The joy and companionship witnessed through the Nursing Home Senior Olympics competition is proof Project Compassion is fulfilling its mission, which is to bring joy and companionship to enhance the quality of life for nursing home residents, Conrad said.

The loneliness gap among seniors is growing, Conrad said. There is a big gap, and it is getting larger, she said. The growing event promotes wellness and healthy competition within each facility and helps residents better themselves, she said. Residents do strengthening exercises throughout the year in preparation for the annual games.

Each nursing home has its own theme for the event, said Mehgan Little, activity director at Greenhurst Nursing Center in Charleston. Residents will vote on the various themes, and the winner will be awarded a plaque, she said.

The activities director at each facility is in charge of the event for their facility, Conrad said. They promote the event and encourage residents to participate as competitors or as cheerleaders.

Residents look so forward to the annual Nursing Home Senior Olympics, Smith said. “No. 1, it gets them out of the house.” Secondly, they get so excited about “getting their t-shirts for the event," she said. “They are on fire.”

The wheelchair races are divided into two categories, Conrad said. There are electric wheelchair races and people-powered wheelchair races. In facilities that have long hallways, residents practice all year, she said. They “really get going.”

The beanbag toss is probably the hardest, Novak said. Residents get two beanbags, and they have to toss them into an oil drain pan. “It’s darn near impossible,” he said, noting that you have to arc the bean bags like a basketball shot.

Other competitions included in the event are the softball shot putt and the discus throw. Residents will have a lunch break mid-way through the event, and the day will conclude with the presentation of awards, Whitworth said.

Practice in preparation for the event last year included, for Novak, shooting 50 baskets before each meal — breakfast, lunch and dinner — daily. Novak was ready last year, he said. After he put the second bag in the pan, the emcee and master of ceremonies for the event, Jonas Schaffer, gave me another bean bag. When asked if he made it, Novak said, “Absolutely.”

Schaffer is the administrator/operator of Greenhurst Nursing Center in Charleston. He serves as the official referee for the Nursing Home Senior Olympics, Conrad said. In addition to their resident/team cheerleaders, Charleston brings Charleston Tiger cheerleaders from the high school to cheer their team, Conrad said.

“It’s a commitment you gotta make,” Novak said. “I work out good days and bad days. If you try hard enough, there’s nothing you can’t do.”