Nelson and Mary Walter, a couple from Berks County, found love through their involvement with a fitness program called SilverSneakers.
Their story inspired a nomination for the Richard L. Swanson Award, a national fitness award given through the SilverSneakers program. The couple, now in the Top 10, await the final result of the vote.
SilverSneakers is a nationwide fitness program for seniors and is owned by a well-being improvement company called Healthways. The program offers free gym access and classes to those who are insured through Medicare.
Dori Nugent, Group Fitness Director for Valhalla Health and Fitness Studio in Exeter, explained that classes are one hour and consist of cardio and weight training.
“It’s slow-paced and fun,” she said. “Camaraderie and socialization are the biggest part of it.”
SilverSneakers is where Nelson, 87, and Mary, 74, were introduced for the first time. Nelson had been showing up from the day the doors opened at Valhalla.
“I started about seven years ago by doctor’s orders,” he said.
Mary Swenk, her maiden name at the time, was a widow and a part of SilverSneakers. When she met Nelson, she was trying to fix up and sell her home to move closer to her children. Nelson had recently lost his wife, and Mary was able to offer him comfort.
“I was a widow, too,” said Mary. “I know it’s hard, and you need to feel needed. That’s why I wanted to live close to my kids.”
Soon, Nelson was helping Mary fix up her house in exchange for home-cooked meals. They forged a friendship that quickly blossomed into an unexpected romance.
“He wouldn’t take payment, so I cooked him meals,” said Mary. “It helped us both because we sat and talked. After we realized we were leaning toward each other and sort of falling in love, it was like we were kids again,” she said.
The couple announced their relationship to their SilverSneakers family; Mary handed a poem to her instructor to read silently. She then presented a cake decorated with the words “Nelson heart Mary” and made the big announcement. In November 2013, the couple decided to marry.
“We didn’t want to get engaged because at our age you don’t know how much time you have, so we just got married,” said Mary.
It was a few months ago that SilverSneakers director Dori Nugent received an email about nominations for the Richard L. Swanson Award. The award is given each year to the member, or members, of SilverSneakers with the most inspirational story. Nugent immediately thought of Nelson and Mary.
“All the SilverSneakers sites get the same email about the award,” said Nugent. “The stories are usually health-based, like somebody who recovered from a heart attack or knee replacement. I thought I would try to go out of the box. Something like 240 applications got submitted nationwide. Nelson and Mary are now in the Top 10,” she said.
“This has been the greatest thing ever for them,” said Nugent. “They are so excited. It’s a lot of fuss for two people who’ve never had fuss in their lives,” she said. “They are overwhelmed in a positive way.”
At 87 and 74 years old, this is a new experience for Nelson and Mary. They are both shocked and honored by the nomination.
“I’m just blown away,” said Mary. “We’ve never even heard of the Swanson Award.”
To vote for Mary and Nelson Walter, visit the SilverSneakers Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SilverSneakers.
Voting ends Aug. 31.
Follow The Southern Berks News on Twitter and Instagram @sthrnberksnews, Tout @southernberksnews and ‘Like’ us on Facebook.com/southernberksnews