She stood on the grassy field. A line of senior basketball players shouted her name from behind.
“Shelly, Shelly, Shelly,” they chanted Tuesday morning.
She steadied her frail frame in her neon green sneakers, rocking the shot put to gain momentum.
“One. Two. Three,” the crowd yelled. Shelly Whitlock swung the weighted ball forward.
She let go.
And with that first shot put throw, she completed one last wish to participate in the Texas Senior Games.
Pretend that grassy field wasn’t the back yard of Stonefield Assisted Living and Memory Care in McKinney. Pretend that shot put wasn’t wrapped in a sock, making it easier for her to grip the 2-pound ball — lighter than average.
Whitlock, 76, was diagnosed in November 2011 with Raynaud’s syndrome, a condition that causes areas of the body to feel numb and cool. The following summer, doctors confirmed a hard patch of skin on her leg was an early sign of scleroderma, a chronic hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues.
She can’t swallow. The disease makes it difficult for her to walk and talk. Now weighing 58 pounds, she’s fed through a feeding tube. She can walk, but mostly gets around in a wheelchair. Her jaw is tight, but she pushes herself to speak.
A senior games competitor for about two decades, Whitlock wanted to attend and compete in the state games in San Antonio next month. She used to swim, play basketball, clear a raised bar in the high jump and throw the shot put and discus. In 2004, she was inducted into the Texas Senior Games Hall of Fame.
But her health made traveling to the April competition impossible.
The compromise: a shot put and discus event at her assisted living center.
“I knew if I wanted to do it, I could,” she said. “I don’t know how much longer God will let me live.”
Whitlock is not competing against other athletes in April, but Tuesday’s event had the backing of the Texas Senior Games.
“She has the greatest will,” said Cathy Pottorf, director of the Texas Senior Games. “She wanted to come so badly.”
Kay Seamayer, a fellow Texas Senior Games hall-of-famer, presented Whitlock two gold medals for her throws Tuesday — 11 and 12 feet for shot put and 9 and 8 feet for discus. The two met about a decade ago while coaching a basketball team for players in their 80s at the senior games.
“No matter what, you still have to have some goals,” said Seamayer, who helped organize Tuesday’s event. “This is Shelly continuing to have goals. No matter how small they are to someone else, they’re huge for her. And huge for all of us who know Shelly.”
People tell story after story of Whitlock cheering other seniors to participate in sports. On Tuesday, she persuaded Eloise Hendrix — Whitlock’s 85-year-old neighbor at the assisted living facility — to throw the shot put.
When Betty Alexander, 71, moved to the Dallas area eight years ago, Whitlock invited her to compete in the Wichita Falls senior games. Alexander had never thrown a shot put or discus, but Whitlock signed her up for almost every event. Alexander still plays basketball for senior games.
“She said, ‘You can do it,’” Alexander said of Whitlock. “She wouldn’t give up on you.”
Last year, Whitlock was awarded North Texas Soccer’s Dale McGregor Golden Whistle Award. Given on an occasional basis, it recognizes a member or former member of the referee community who has made an impact on the game. She was the eighth person at the time to receive the award since 1999.
A former soccer referee, Whitlock was the first woman to officiate men’s senior league top division games in Texas, and the first invited to Sweden to referee the Gothia Cup — the world’s largest youth soccer tournament. In 1977, Whitlock was the first woman to try out for the North American Soccer League to officiate professional games.
She’s always liked finishing first.
Growing up in Oklahoma City, she’d race the boys down her elementary sidewalk during recess.
“I was the fastest runner of the girls,” said Whitlock, who grew up playing intramural volleyball, table tennis and swimming.
Her husband, Wes — who established with Whitlock in the 1980s the Michelob Ladies Football Club, a women’s amateur soccer team — lives in the assisted living center with her. He thought his wife’s plan to throw the shot put and discus was crazy, but he wasn’t shocked.
“After 48 years of marriage to her, nothing surprises me,” he said. “It’s great.”
Tuesday’s medals will join a wall decorated with dozens more in Whitlock’s room. When the couple moved out of their Plano home into assisted living, Whitlock’s medals filled five packing boxes. She gave most of them away, keeping only her most prized ones.
Now, these will hang alongside them.
“Nothing but gold for Shelly,” Seamayer said, hanging the medals around Whitlock’s neck.