Golden Age Warriors

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Attitude and action have more to do with winning than age does, Jayne MacAulay discovers.

They’re hard-core elite athletes, but you’ve probably never heard of them. Still, in sports as diverse as hurdling, judo, swimming and kayaking, master athletes (usually 35 and older, depending on their sport) continue to set world records in five- or 10-year age ranks set by their sport’s governing body.

“They don’t wait for anybody to tell them this is what you can or should do. And they don’t mind if people think they’re a little bit freaky for still doing intensive competitive sport at their age,” says documentary producer Micheline Shoebridge.

Champions Grisonnants (Greying Champions), co-produced by Balestra Productions and Shoebridge, 38, and co-directed by her husband, Randy Kelly, 39, and Mark Chatel, will air on Quebec’s TV5. It focuses on the three superb athletes whose photographs appear here. If backed by a broadcaster, the couple will later film 60-and-older English-speaking athletes going head-to-head with younger competitors or competing with their peers in the World Masters Games in Sydney, Australia, in October. (Of more than 25,000 mature competitors expected in 28 sports, about 1,600 are Canadians.)


Shoebridge wants to create a Golden Age Warriors series to showcase older athletes, who along with unique backgrounds bring a positive attitude and a passion — even an obsession — for their sport. “People today are ageist,” she points out, “but these people are just blasting through the glass ceiling.”

Gisèle Gravel, Judo master, 68
When Gisèle Gravel began studying judo as a 25-year-old mother of two, she never dreamed she would be the first woman named to Judo Quebec’s Hall of Fame, a member of Judo Canada’s Hall of Fame or made a knight of the National Order of Quebec, her province’s highest honour. She opened a dojo (judo studio) in 1972, training 55 to 60 students to black belt rank and has herself achieved rokudan — sixth degree dan (of 10 dans at black belt level). Five days a week, she rollerblades for an hour, jogs or walks rapidly for an hour and adds 30 minutes of strength training. The resident of Laterrière, Que., says judo has taught her everything: “Self-control, self-reliance, physical fitness, perseverance, patience, endurance and respect for others.”


Jean Bernaquez, Runner, 77
“At any age, you can train and be healthy,” says Jean Bernaquez. He ran his first marathon at age 49 but now competes in 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-metre races. The Montrealer dodged knee surgery three years ago by dropping his weekly training regimen of 120 kilometres of running to 40 kilometres with 40 kilometres of walking. He added 400 to 500 sit-ups to streng- then abdominal muscles and his back. Vegetables and cereals, with meat once a week, keep him a trim 140 pounds. A too-low heart rate led to a pacemaker two years ago — he tested it a month later by running 10 miles. Last fall, the Université de Montréal’s kinesiology clinic estimated his cardiovascular capacity equalled that of a 45-year-old.


Pierre Gendron, Mountain biker, 63
“I usually end up winning a gold medal because I’m the only one in my age category,” Pierre Gendron of Quebec City laughs. Nevertheless, at 63, the mountain biker is a fierce competitor on both downhill and cross-country courses. In winter, cross-country skiing keeps him fit. He switched from marathon running to mountain biking in 1991 after trying a friend’s bike.
At races, he’s heard women telling husbands, “Hey, this guy is still doing this. You should try it again.” And he agrees — if a doctor checks them out first. Gendron says, “Don’t hold back because of what people may say. If you stop being yourself, you’ll be an angry old man. People will prefer the guy who’s doing crazy things and coming home full of dirt. So go for it.”

(Summer 2009)