A HUSH falls over the crowd as Marge Vallone, 54, eyes the long jump pit in front of her. Dressed in form-fitting royal blue shorts, a long white muscle T-shirt, a sun visor, and glasses, Vallone clenches her fists and readies herself.
``Come on, Marge, don't be so ladylike!'' shouts Libby Hagemann, 73, one of Vallone's three smiling opponents. ``Put on your game face!''
Vallone launches herself down the runway. Her arms pump, and her legs wobble.
``Don't slow down! Don't slow down!'' shouts Jack Hagemann, 76, Libby's husband and every long-jumper's unofficial coach. ``Don't lose your momentum!''
Vallone hits the mark at half stride, throws her hands forward, and launches herself a foot in the air. She hits the sand hard and stumbles forward. Cheers erupt from spectators and fellow competitors.
``Five feet, 10 inches,'' the judge cries.
Vallone, the only competitor in the 50-to-59 age group, shakes her fist in the air in triumph. She had beaten her previous jump.
Whatever competitors in the Massachusetts Senior Games may lack in athletic ability, they make up for in determination. During a June weekend of record-setting hot weather, more than 600 over-50-year-old athletes from 11 states competed in 20 events ranging from basketball to the pole vault.
The annual event has more than doubled in size since it began in 1992 and is part of an exploding national trend. More than 200,000 people nationwide compete in senior games in 48 states. Winners qualify for the biennial national championships, and more than 8,000 are expected to attend the fifth US National Senior Sports Classic in San Antonio next summer.
``I think we're seeing a wonderful phenomenon in seeing people stay fit from 50 to 90,'' says long-jumper Vallone.
``We have to think positive, and these games create a positive image of aging. Just the little bit I do physically changes me so much for the better. I feel as good as I did when I was 25.''
The competition, held at Springfield College, included impressive displays of athletic ability and longevity. Libby Hagemann won golds in the long jump, high jump, shot put, and hammer throw. She is headed to the national championships for the third time.
Dorothy Donnelly, 72, a member of the 1940 United States Olympic team that was to have competed in Helsinki before the games were canceled because of World War II, won five gold medals in her age group in the 50-, 100- and 400-meter freestyle, the 50-meter backstroke, and 200-meter individual medley. She is going to the nationals for the fifth time.
Ninety-three-year-old Trescott Abele was the oldest participant here, competing in the shot put and javelin. George Conway, 91, competed in the shot put, javelin, and 1,500-meter race walk.
Seniors are being drawn to the event in increasing numbers because of the event's strong sense of camaraderie, according to games chairman Jack Neumann, who is 67.
``The social interaction is as much a part of it as the competition,'' Neumann says, as his wife and daughter watch him warm up for the javelin throw. ``I don't think it's a matter of trying to live longer. It's the quality that matters in life, and this keeps that quality high.''
During the games, friendly taunts, teasing, and laughter filled the three yellow tents under which competitors in light-blue Senior-Games ``Catch the Spirit'' T-shirts gathered to escape the hot sun.
Spectators, and the participants themselves, seemed to forget that the competitors were supposed to be ``old.'' Many of the 60-, 70-, and 80-year-olds look, move, and sound like they are in their 30s.
Competitors say the games give them a chance to try new things and set new goals in life. Rita Slater, 72, tried the long jump and the hammer throw for the first time in her life.
``I always loved being outdoors and active as a teenager and a child, but I was told not to do sports and be a tomboy,'' she says. ``I'm glad things have changed for my grandchildren.''
The first senior games were held in California in 1969, but the number of local and state games did not begin to grow rapidly until the 1980s.
``The long-term goal we have is to have an [international championship] in Europe,'' says Doug Corderman, president of the US National Senior Sports Organization.
``People from Japan, Mexico, Hong Kong, Singapore, and different places in Europe have all asked for information. It [the international games] will come; it's too good an idea.''
Ellery Clark, an 84-year-old World War II veteran, whose father won a gold medal in the high jump in Athens in 1896 at the first modern Olympic Games, competed in the 1,500-meter, 800-meter, 100-meter, discus, shot-put, and javelin events. Clark says his secret is ``staying off drugs and staying off cigars and cigarettes.''
``I have 105 golds, 23 silvers, and 23 bronzes'' from various senior games, Clark says, dressed in a white Boston Red Sox hat, green running shorts, maroon running shoes, and dark socks. ``Check me out next summer: I'll be in the 85-to-90 age group.''