In Conversation: What Makes Olga Run?

Here, what a 90-something track star can teach us about living longer, happier lives

Chances are high you’ve heard of Olga Kotelko recently.

Since the Canadian track star turned 90 she’s been attracting global attention for her inspiring successes in Masters track and field competitions where she currently holds 26 world records for her age group. Vancouver-based journalist Bruce Grierson has spent much time with the nonagenarian Canadian, accompanying her to track meets to see her in action, and to research facilities around North America where he and medical researchers hope to learn the secrets of her thriving tissues and age-resistant DNA.

For his book WHAT MAKES OLGA RUN?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star, and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives, Olga welcomed him — and us — into her world, where we learn that your life might benefit most of all from how you live it.

In Zoomer’s recent conversation with the author and the athlete, a lively conference call, we experienced Olga’s spirit and determination firsthand.

Why she’s excited to turn 95 this March:

Olga’s spring birthday puts her in a new age bracket for competitions and the World Masters Athletes have their Indoor Championships in Budapest this March.  “I certainly hope that I have some competition there. I’m more excited about 95 than I was 94.”

There’s no reason to believe Olga won’t achieve a few more world records. “Especially the jumps, there haven’t been ninety-year-olds doing the jumping, so I broke the record in that category. I’m still jumping and I’m going to do that when I’m 95. “

How attitude matters:

As Grierson got to know Olga, the more he suspected her positive attitude was a factor in her remarkable abilities. “I decided to research all I could about longevity and attitude,” he says. “It’s tricky to test the demonstrable affects of attitude of things like performance and aging. But there is some science around it, there is some research to suggest that positivism in general — and I  don’t mean Pollyanna-ish, a failure to see the bad stuff in life — but a strategic attempt to not let the bad stuff get you down and to concentrate on the more positive stuff. There’s evidence that if that is your attitude, you will fare better health-wise and longevity-wise that people who think in terms of what they can’t do as they get older.”

How to get that good attitude:

“You just have to be brave enough to pursue and broaden your horizons,” Olga says. “I had to broaden my horizons in track and field, to have bigger physical and social pursuits in my life. You are never too old to achieve your dream. I choose to be a young-at-heart athlete, rather than an old woman. And I love it.”

Why you need to get off the couch:

Much of the take-away from the book can be found in its nine codas for living. Of these, Grierson says “Keep Moving” is one that speaks to him personally. “Olga has been in motion for a lot of her life,” he says. “We think of her as being a product of the sport she does, but almost a bigger factor is that she is not sedentary… I’ve had a different approach to fitness than Olga, which has been if you get a good cardio blast once a day or every other day, then that’s it, that’s all you need, you can coast. I’ll get in my morning run and then I’m sedentary for the rest of the day, like a brain in a vat. We’re learning that is a terrible way to live. That is worse for you than any amount of exercise can possibly overcome. It’s not so such about getting your exercise in as not being inert.”

What you should start being more active right now:

There is much research that shows you can still benefit from exercise later in life, even if you’ve been quite sedentary. Olga has encouraging words for those looking to become more active.  “Say to yourself, ‘If Olga can do it, I can do it,’” she says. “Get rid of the junk. ‘It’s too rainy,’ or ‘I’m too old.’ I call that junk. Laugh at yourself. Set realistic goals. Realistic goals that you can reach, fulfill, and be happy with them … and make friends of all ages. All of this will boast your morale and give you enormous confidence. Go for it. Start today and keep at it!”