Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Timeless track star

Nonagenarian draws surprising strength from early hardships

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"Old age ain't for sissies," actress Bette Davis famously said.

But then, she never met Olga Kotelko.

Kotelko is the 94-year-old Canadian track-and-field star who holds more than 23 world records and an approach to life and fitness that astounds the world's leading researchers.

And no, those aren't typos. She is 94, and 17 of her world records are in her current age group of 90 to 94.

And no, that's not a typo either. There is a 90-to-94 year-old category at masters athletics championship track meets.

Social-science writer Bruce Grierson looks at every aspect of what makes Kotelko run. He seeks answers through DNA testing, evolutionary theory, and personality tests. He studies her life, her faith, her sleeping patterns, her diet and her training.

Grierson explores why some of us might be Olgas of the future while most of us will have trouble warming up the rocking chair on the veranda at the old folks' home.

Even Kotelko isn't sure where her energy comes from, but she guesses she has the energy level of a 50-year-old. She comes across as the quiet, grandmotherly type until she explodes on the track in her 11 events (making her a nonagenarian undecathlete).

Vancouver-based Grierson — a five-time winner of Canadian National Magazine Awards whose work also appears in American and British periodicals — makes it clear Kotelko, also Vancouver-based, is a powerhouse in more ways than the mere physical.

How has she slowed the aging process?

Probably a combination of things, Grierson surmises. Hardship early in life tends to form strong character, and strong character often goes hand-in-hand with longevity. Kotelko grew up in a loving Ukrainian family on a Depression-era Saskatchewan farm, milking cows as soon as she was big enough to lift a bucket. She washed and ironed 15 sets of clothing, baked 12 loaves of bread at a time, lugged eggs and butter to sell in tiny Vonda, Sask., and walked four kilometres to school.

She survived a brutal marriage. When her abusive husband pulled a knife on Kotelko, pregnant with her second child, she defied him and every tenet she'd ever been taught and walked out with her eight-year-old daughter. It was 1953, and she considered herself the first single mother ever. She went back to school to qualify as a teacher.

Kotelko came late to track, as did all the other senior athletes Grierson writes about. She was 77 before she began competing, about the age Grandma Moses was when she started painting.

Grierson floats the theory that senior athletes achieve their physical prowess later in life because they can. Athletes who excel in their youth generally sideline themselves with injuries long before Kotelko's age. The human body can only be pushed so hard before it breaks down.

And there could well be a mental component. You may be world champion in your 20s or 30s, but you can't stay there, so you walk away. Just as impossible -- and perhaps just a tad pathetic -- is a stab at making a comeback, and athletes know that.

Grierson says, in a sly reference to decathlete Bruce Jenner, it's far better to marry and father a few Kardashians than linger and fail in the athletic world.

The book is a serious search for the fountain of youth, but Grierson makes it an amusing quest thanks to his humour, welcome among all the scientific reporting. Perhaps most amusing is his reaction when it dawns on him that he is aging faster than Kotelko.

Inspired by his subject, Grierson decides to enter a track meet with Kotelko. He is filled with hope that, although he'd compete in the 45-to-50 age category, his time in the 10,000-metre event would qualify as a win in the 80-to-85 category. His goal was to be the "fastest damn 80-year-old in the world."

Sadly, it was not to be. The image of Kotelko and another senior athlete helping a limping, hurting Grierson off the track where he'd collapsed just past the finish line is enduring and endearing. Perhaps it would have made a better image for the book cover than that of Kotelko mid-flight in the long jump, inspiring as that photo is.

While not actually a self-help book, Kotelko's story will inspire the mid-life reader to question why they are more like Grierson than they are like Kotelko.

For her part, Kotelko can't wait to turn 95 and be the new kid on the block in a new age category. All those juicy world records to be broken has her rubbing her hands in anticipation ± the same hands that help make 500-dozen perogies at her church every other Tuesday, pinching the little envelopes of dough closed for eight hours straight.

That's the type of energy mid-life readers seek, and often around this time of year. How opportune that this book should hit the market just as many mid-lifers and others hit the gym, heads swimming with New Year's resolutions.

Kotelko's story — and Grierson's, too — will inspire readers to keep those resolutions and make this the year they get active and healthy. No, really.

 

Julie Carl is the Winnipeg Free Press associate editor, engagement. She vows to start running as soon as the weather breaks. No, really.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 G5

History

Updated on Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 8:33 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

January 20, 2014 at 2:36 PM: adds related items

January 22, 2014 at 11:52 AM: Clarifies Bruce Jenner competed in decathlons.

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