The X Factor: Inspiring Zoomer Athletes
Jayne MacAulay considers age and athletes in the longevity equation.
Olga Kotelko died after this piece was published in the June issue of Zoomer magazine. Read more about that here.
Most 90-plus women don’t jump as far as possible across a pit of sand, show up in gym gear on NBC’s Today show or have photographers in their faces at international track meets. But then they’re not Olga Kotelko, who turned 95 in early March and gleefully moved up an age category (95 to 99) to ace eight new world records at the World Masters Athletics Indoor Championships in Budapest, Hungary. (Masters games athletes compete in five-year age categories that start at age 35.)
Kotelko and her ilk challenge assumptions that chronologically old people can’t be high-level athletes. In fact, this five-foot-tall great-grandmother from West Vancouver, B.C., is considered one of the world’s greatest, chewing through world records after taking up track and field athletics at the age of 77.
Baseball had been the game of choice growing up with her 10 siblings on the family farm in Saskatchewan, so at 70, she chose to play slo-pitch. Figuring the game’s throwing and running would transfer to athletics, she joined a local track club seven years later, where a competent coach helped her avoid injury while building strength and endurance. Her 11 events – hammer throw, shot put, weight, discus and javelin, 100-, 200- and 400-metre runs, long jump, high jump and triple jump – demand different skills, which hone balance, strength, agility, aerobic fitness and keep her brain sharp, too.
Using Masters athletics age-graded tables (AGT) for comparing age categories, Masters’ results often equal or better real world records. Why can they do this?
Data is scarce on older competitors, but scientists at McGill’s department of kinesiology and physical education in Montreal have begun investigating. They’re testing at least 20 top international-level athletes over 75 (when muscles tend to shrink), including Kotelko, Fee, 83-year-old Ed Whitlock of Milton, Ont., and Kotelko’s protégé, Christa Bortignon, 76, from West Vancouver, to contrast with non-athletes of the same age. (Kotelko reports her muscles turned out to be comparable to a 60-year-old and her brain to someone in her 50s.) Researchers may tap into their fountain of youth or, by discovering how their muscles stay intact, find a key to help people suffering from neuromuscular diseases.
Is Kotelko’s activity stretching her lifespan?
“Yes!” she answers emphatically. In fact, the young-at-heart athlete asserts, “I’m not old. I don’t know how to behave as old. It’s so different from what I am doing now.”