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Polly and John Loades were never athletic. When it came to sports, Polly Loades preferred "bench-warming." Her husband did a little hunting.

But when they retired, they decided to get physical. Now, in their early 60s, archery's their game.

For Tony and Susan Cole, it's the ancient sport of bocce ball, a game traditionally associated with old Italian men, that gets the couple out of the house to go roll balls down a court.

Pickleball is the new passion of Healdsburg grape-growers Candy and Steve Sommer.

The three couples will be among an expected 1,500 athletes competing in 20 different sports in this year's Sonoma Wine Country Senior Games, a competition for athletes over age 50 that runs May 29 through June 8. More information is at www.winecountrygames.com.

It's not just a once-a-year challenge that makes these born-again athletes want to move. It's finding a sport that gets them off the couch, enlarges their social circle and, in the case of these couples, doing something they like together.

As Polly Loades said, "I knew I didn't want to pick up a rifle and he wasn't into gardening."

John Loades, a retired utility manager, started off by using a bow to hunt elk and then discovered "there's more to archery than hunting."

The Loades' property in the Occidental hills is dotted with bull's-eye targets. But they get most of their bow shooting done with their group, the Sonoma County Bowmen, which holds competitions and practice shoots at a wooded, hilly range in Two Rock.

To stay flexible and build their muscles, the Loades also work out daily at their home gym.

Drop stress

John Loades credits his new-found exercise with helping him to drop the weight and the stress he carried for a lifetime.

"Nothing like shooting off five or six arrows," he said, to get rid of everyday worries.

Polly Loades, a retired high school counselor, said, "I was the one who slunk down when people were choosing teams" in gym class. As an archer, she's not only gained confidence but an enviable posture and surprising strength.

Demonstrating how to stand and aim her bow, Polly Loades said, "It takes a lot of arm strength to pull this back."

She flexed a bicep and said, "my first muscle bump."

Susan Cole, 62, an office manager, and Tony Cole, 67, a retired business owner, travel with their bocce balls, although Tony Cole was disappointed on a trip to Italy to find "no one playing bocce. They were all playing cards."

Susan Cole was not into sports before bocce and now she's on a women's team and also plays couples with her husband. The Coles are regulars at the bocce courts at Julliard Park and are building their own court at their rural Santa Rosa home.

While rolling a bocce ball is a fairly simple process, which makes it easy to learn, Susan Cole said, "You always continue to improve. All I know is at the end of three games you're pooped."

Exercise-wise, "it's not a hike up to Annadel and bike," said Tony Cole, "but it's more than picking up a ball and rolling it. You're bending, lifting, throwing, walking."

And you get to drink wine. While bocce ball no longer belongs to one gender, age or ethnicity, "someone always brings a bottle of wine," said Susan Cole. And there's usually a potluck meal.

Risk in not exercising

While it was once common to stop pushing yourself after a certain age, doctors now stress that the greater risk for older people is not to exercise. That's one purpose of the senior games, sponsored by the Council on Aging - to inspire others over 50 to get a move on.

Candy Sommer, 65, used to play softball. Her husband swam. They discovered pickleball, a combination of badminton, tennis and ping pong, in Palm Desert one winter.

Now they're at the pickleball courts in Windsor and Santa Rosa several days a week.

As grape growers, Candy Somner said, "We don't do a lot of physical stuff except during harvest. Once we do that and see the grandkids I want to go play pickleball.

"You get a workout. It's a fast game, good cardio. You have to kind of squat and bend for the ball so it's good exercise for the knees, thighs, buttocks. Then there is meeting new people, making more circles. That's almost as important as the cardio work."

Plus, she said, being an older athlete naturally leads to healthy habits.

"You become more conscientious about how you eat and what you do so you can last longer."

(Susan Swartz is a freelance writer and author based in Sonoma County. Contact her at susan@juicytomatoes.com.)

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