The clanging of horseshoes against steel stakes and the thwap-thwap of pickleballs getting smacked back and forth were a big part of the 2019 National Senior Games held June 14-25 in Albuquerque.

Fifty-one-year-old Sam Chavez of Estancia—competing in his first-ever National Senior Games in the 50-54 age bracket—captured a gold medal by winning four straight sets over his opponent on June 23 in the horseshoes competition at Albuquerque’s Los Altos Park.

“To be a national champion my first time out, it’s great,” Chavez said.

Nabil Merhi of Tijeras and Sally Gillich of Sandia Park both had strong showings in the pickleball competition at Manzano Mesa Multigenerational Center in Albuquerque.

Gillich, with partner Joyce Paulsen, placed fourth in the womens doubles, 50-54 age bracket.

Merhi, competing in the 65-69 age bracket, made it to the June 25 finals in the mens singles competition and finished in fifth place.

At the start of the finals round, Merhi said his aim was to win a gold medal. He placed fourth in the 2017 National Senior Games.

But after beating several opponents, he couldn’t get past Terry Otis of Nevada, who went on to win the bronze.

Nabil Merhi returning a volley during pickleball finals at the National Senior Games on June 25. Photo by G. Demarest.

“I’m very pleased with my effort, I took fifth out of 33 [competitors in the 65-69 age bracket], so it’s nothing to sneeze about,” Merhi said.

He said that beyond the competition aspect, Merhi likes the Senior Games because they are open to everybody.

“It’s a nice tournament, you meet people from all around the United States,’’ he said, adding, “It’s very tough competition, there are a lot of top players here.”

Gillich, who will be playing pickleball at the Atlantic Regionals next week, said she enjoyed having out-of-state friends converge on Albuquerque to play pickleball.

“To have all the people I’ve met from around the country come here—it’s a little pickleball dream come true for me,” she said.

Every two years, the National Senior Games are hosted in different cities around the United States, and thousands of men and women over the age of 50 compete in various sports ranging from traditional track and field events to shuffleboard.

Participants generally compete at the state level to qualify for the National Senior Games, which are commonly referred to as the Senior Olympics.

This year’s event in Albuquerque attracted 13,712 senior athletes—making it the largest in the National Senior Games’ 32-year history, according to Del Moon, communications and media director for the National Senior Games Association.

“Different people participate for different reasons,” Moon said. “Some of them are very serious athletes, some just see all the other people enjoying a healthy lifestyle and they want to get out and do it.”

Sam Chavez pitching horseshoes at the National Senior Games on June 23 in Albuquerque. Photo by G. Demarest.

Chavez said his father got him hooked on horseshoes more than 25 years ago, and he decided to compete in the Senior Games because his father and grandfather have both competed. “I’m just following my role models,” he said.

Chavez’ grandfather—Willard mayor Robert Chavez—didn’t compete this year, but his father, who’s also named Sam, competed in a few track and field events in the 65-69 age bracket, finishing in the top 20 in the javelin and the hammer throw competitions.

“The thing about Senior Olympics is, it’s about the well-being of the seniors participating, it’s about staying active,” the elder Chavez said.

According to the NSGA website, New Mexico senior athletes tallied 662 total medals—more than any other state total in the 2019 Senior Games.

Many tricounty residents competed in various sports, including serious athletes like Colleen Burns of McIntosh, who won five gold medals, three silvers and a bronze in swimming and track in the 70-74 age bracket. Along the way, Burns set two National Senior Games records.

For a complete list of results from all the sports in the 2019 Senior games, go to