by Laura Clark
It used to be if you made it to the 70-year-old age group fairly intact, you were pretty much guaranteed an impressive medal collection to pass down to your grandkids. Not anymore. As athletes have worked their way through and beyond Title IX, 80 has become the new 70. I was fortunate. Teetering on the diving board, I hit the trend when it was just beginning to boomerang and captured the merry-go-round ring of a 70-year-old podium finish at the World Championship Snowshoe Races. But even when I did so, the recognition was bittersweet, as elbowing nearby were several of my 69-year-old friends who were ever so much faster. Still, it was a great year!
Not quite ready to throw in the towel, no matter how wet it may be, I did what I always did in times of puzzlement and turned to books. Perhaps if I moved to some small midwestern town I could double my chances? Does CBD actually work? And most importantly, is it really just good genes? Obviously not, since the 55-year threshold of dread in the 1920s is now considered merely middle-aged.
My investigation led me to examine three books, but there are a lot more out there that you may wish to sample:
The first and quickest read is Never Too Late: Inspiration, Motivation, and Sage Advice from 7 Later-in-Life Athletes, by Kate Champion (Mountain Morning Press, 2020).
No matter what your primary sport, you are sure to find inspiration as the men and women interviewed represent a wide range of interests: ultrarunning, hiking, mountaineering, triathlon, and swimming. To begin my exploration, I zeroed in on the final athlete, Sister Madonna Buder, an 87-year-old triathlete who continues to break records. She and Sister Marion Irvine were my first experience with older athletes when I was in my fifties, the age that the author is now. Serendipitously, Sister Madonna was speaking in Cambridge (New York) and Christine McKnight and I, who were both injured at the time, decided we could use a dose of inspiration if we were to continue in our lifestyle. Coming from a Catholic school upbringing, I had never thought nuns could be athletic and had always felt sorry for the sisters who didn’t seem to be able to enjoy the outdoors. Sisters Madonna and Marion were a revelation: not only were they breaking age boundaries, but making the path of a religious life so much more attractive.
Despite the appeal of reading about others like me, I was disappointed that Champion plied each subject with the same series of inquiries. After the first few chapters, I was hoping for questions based on personalized knowledge. But then I decided to approach this volume from another point of view. I went through each profile one segment at a time to discern common nuggets of wisdom. All but two of the interviewees held to a strict morning/evening routine. Only one could recall an instance of age discrimination. They thought of themselves as “ordinary” athletes, propelled forward by a mission, not to accumulate medals per se, but to demonstrate what was possible. Most telling, and consistent with the more in-depth research conducted in the following two books, all either started their athletic career later in life or jumpstarted once more after several decade’s hiatus. Apparently, fresh muscles have less to do with age than with use.
When you complete your tour, please do investigate the extensive list of resources in the back of the book. As a mental health professional, Champion provides a self-examination checklist for those of us wishing to refine our thinking and a review of books, podcasts, YouTubes, blogs, Facebook groups, races, and trail systems mentioned by the athletes. Now there will be no excuse to “look it up later!”
The next selection, What Makes Olga Run? The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives, by Bruce Grierson (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015), offers an in-depth scientific examination of all the factors, habits, and attitudes that might have contributed to Olga’s longevity in the sport. For she is not just competing against her age group. Frequently she is up against those much younger, which offers a sense of competition and lends interest to the eleven events she competes in during a track meet. There is, of course, no way to compute her standings against other famous repeaters like Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. Still, the fact that she can win all of her events with ease and grace well into her nineties must be in some way comparable.
In denial over his own mid-life crisis, Bruce Grierson, an award-winning freelance writer, follows Olga around for approximately four years and multiple scientific tests to discover what keeps her not only living but thriving. Inspired, he began his own exercise program, but until his young children started sleeping through the night, he always needed a mid-day nap to keep up with Olga! To Grierson’s surprise, all the poking and prodding turns out not to be the main focus after all. Olga becomes Grierson’s parent, who died too early. What shines throughout the book is their intensely caring relationship.
As a result of this perspective, Grierson determines that the one prescription is, “Break a sweat daily and differently, with others.” Following this rule, unlike Grierson, Olga never has a day off. There is never a day when she is unmotivated or has to talk herself into a workout. It is simply who she is. And while we may never be like Olga, it turns out that her secret is more mental than physical. So perhaps we can come pretty darn close.
If you have made it this far, it is now time for a consult with neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist Daniel J. Levitin. In his defining work, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives (Dutton, 2020), Levitin takes you through the early stages of childhood brain development, pausing significantly at the older brain. While our throw-away society tends to focus on the middle stages of growth, Levitin makes a case for embracing the contributions of continuing learners. For him, older folks are not any more or less effective than younger folks, just at a different stage of development. They may have slower reaction times and need a few special accommodations (don’t we all?). But that is more than made up for by their ability to analyze patterns, tune into long-term trends, and recognize go-around fixes when things do not go according to plan.
The keywords here are “life span” and being able to take advantage of the strengths of all the stages and compensate for those areas where peak physical performance is no longer attainable. The most successful older people, he maintains, are those who cultivate a growth mindset. They are not afraid to roll with the punches, adapt their outlooks, and experiment with new ways of thinking. They interact with many younger friends and, most importantly, do not think of themselves as being “old.”
This is, in fact, the secret of each interviewee in the above books – they learned to adapt to present circumstances. When Olga worried about concussion possibilities from her softball games, rather than becoming sedentary, she switched sports to track and field. When she had difficulty clearing hurdles, she hired a coach to help her with techniques better suited to her aging body. Feel free to hunt and peck throughout Levitin’s book to discover the adaptations that will enable your experience to shine through.