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Wicket awesome: Army, Navy retirees revel in competition

September 6, 2015 (Photo Credit: Veterans Affairs)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The crowd was hushed, the grass manicured and the stakes high Aug. 28 at Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay for the retirement community's third annual Army-Navy croquet match.

Except for the sound of onlookers placing drink orders and commenting quietly on the game, it was silent on the court.

Suddenly, the crowd erupted in a cheer after Worthy Pegram of Team Army hit an especially long shot through a wicket, the equivalent of a golfing hole-in-one, onlookers said.

Pegram pumped his fist in the air, beaming.

The game was neck-and-neck until the very end, when Team Navy claimed victory for the second year in a row.

For nearly two hours, teams of eight — one of retired Army veterans and one of retired Navy veterans — played croquet, drawing a crowd. On one side, a row of women sat, each with a large cut-out letter, spelling "ARMY." On the other, a crowd cheered for the Navy.

Dick Binford, 79, wore a "Beat Army" pin on his collar. He was one of the Navy players Friday, though he also spent 30 years in the Air Force.

He's been playing for only eight months, but he plays golf and sees similarities between the two. His favorite part of the activity is its ability to bring players together. Last Thursday, he said, he played against a 94-year-old woman and was pretty impressed.

"I don't care what your sex is. I don't care what your age is. Anyone can play the game," he said.

It's not uncommon to find a croquet player among Westminster-Canterbury's roughly 650 residents — nearly 1 in every 6 play.

Paul Schellhammer, 75, plays pickup croquet a few times a week. He was playing Friday for Team Army. The secret to good croquet, he said, is hand-eye coordination and balancing offense and defense.

"It combines good vision and a steady hand. Like a chess match," he said.

It's these demands that make croquet great for nurturing mental agility, according to Westminster-Canterbury's president and CEO, Ben Unkle, who tossed the coin at the start of the match.

"Engagement is the secret sauce of aging well, no matter what age you are," he said. During the winter, the residents switch to ping pong, which also uses mental and physical agility.

Unkle cited a study that says the No. 1 factor in maintaining a healthy brain is physical activity, followed by mental activity.

A little competition doesn't hurt either.

"Oh, I just love the competition," Binford said.

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