By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor
Beginning of a New Year? Goal setting time. This year, however, my goal stretches far beyond 2019. My goal is to be in it for the long haul.
I’ve realized that I’m on the downward slope of performance in my athletic career. I may be younger than the average CTS athlete, but when I left a career as a professional cyclist I had to acknowledge to myself that I would likely never again reach that level of physical potency.
The Olympic Games are over for me, but I’ve recently discovered something else to look forward to. In less than two decades, I will be eligible to compete in the Senior Games. The Senior Games is an every-other-year, national competition for those 50 and older — and according to the Senior Games’ website, it is the largest such multisport event in the world. You have to qualify, it’s competitive, and the video coverage is genuinely breathtaking.
If we want to play the long game, there are plenty of things we can and should do for our bodies, minds, and motivation. As Mary Begaye, the 66-year-old captain of a senior games basketball team says: “Take care of the elder you will become.”
If that quip feels a bit too warm and fuzzy, you could also follow the advice of Don Phillips, an 85-year-old track and field competitor from South Dakota: “Outlive some, and outrun the rest!”
In either case — here are some tips for staying strong, improving, and continuing to compete for as long as you feel the urge.
You can still improve
Physiological gains come more quickly in youth, but chasing individual potential has the same significance whether we are 18 or 85. After setting an age-group hour world record at 100, French cyclist Robert Marchand, considered an “elite centenarian cyclist,” adopted a new training program as a part of a study on the physiological abilities of older athletes. At 103, Marchand bested his previous hour record by more than two kilometers, improved his VO2 max, and improved his peak power output. While the study’s analysis did note that Marchand may be a bit of an outlier, the principles of his training program can benefit us all.
“Numerous studies show that an endurance athlete’s VO2 max declines gradually, typically starting sometime in your 30s,” Chris Carmichael wrote in a CTS post about aging gracefully as an athlete. “For many athletes this decline only starts to become noticeable in the late 40s or early 50s. What doesn’t seem to decline is your ability to operate at a high percentage of your maximum potential. One of the goals my coaches and I have is to push an athlete’s power at lactate threshold to a higher percentage of that athlete’s power at VO2 max. For example, rather than having a threshold power at 75% of VO2 max power output, we aim to get it to 80% of VO2 max. Even as your VO2 max is slightly declining due to age, with training you can sustain or improve the percentage of that VO2 at which you can operate.”
(As a side note, Marchand’s doctor recommended that lay off a bit, prompting the world-record holder to retire at the end of 2017 at age 106. It didn’t take, and Marchand was reportedly seen back at the velodrome this fall, preparing for a comeback.)
Although Olga Kotelko passed away in 2014 at the age of 95, she did so after notching 30 world records and 750 gold medals for her age category. Her Wikipedia page now honors the Canadian as “one of the world’s greatest athletes.” Kotelko began her competitive sports career at age 77.
We might not be able to run and jump with the same ferocity as a 20-year-old once we’re pushing 90, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy pursuing improvement or experiencing challenge and physical activity. Going as hard as you can is a lifelong privilege, even as your personal definition of “hard” changes.
“I think your age is just a number. It’s not your birthday, it’s how you age which makes the difference,” Kotelko told the BBC in 2014. “It’s your attitude to all the things that happen in your life that plays the biggest part.”
Kotelko took care of herself like any other athlete, continuing to get regular massages as she aged. An MRI of Kotelko’s brain as part of research into mind-body connection showed that she had an exceptional large amount of white matter in the corpus callosum when compared to far younger women — so a big part of her physiological advantage may have indeed been in her mind.
“I just want to keep on going until I drop,” Kotelko added. “I guess that’s when I’ll have to stop.”
The biggest problem for Florida’s Leurene Hildenbrand at the Senior Games is that she’s only allowed to compete in a couple of sports each cycle — though according to ABC Action News, pickleball is her specialty. The 86-year-old also participates in cycling, rollerblading (she picked up a bike after noting that passing cyclists could go faster than she could on blades), table tennis, shuffleboard, billiards and bocce ball (she likes those because they involve physics), volleyball, archery, and track and field.
“Every sport that I try, I like,” Hillenbrand told local Fox 13 News at the end of 2017. “So, I added it. That’s how I ended up with so many different sports that I participate in.”
One of chief dangers for older athletes is overuse injuries, so finding a variety of ways to stay active can help stave off breakdown as well as help keep you mentally sharp with new challenges.
Of course, that won’t protect you entirely — Hillenbrand has been through her share of trials as an athlete as well. She broke her hand playing pickleball and faced a tough comeback from cataract surgery — though she still went on to win a silver and bronze medal in table tennis that same year. “Life is a journey that’s filled with hopes and dreams and challenges and setbacks and goodbyes,” Hillenbrand said in a Senior Games profile several years ago. “All of that. You have to make the best of it no matter what.”
Focus on mobility
According to Jeff Bercovici, whose book, “Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age” was released earlier this year, it is more important to focus on movement quality as you age, rather than worrying about just getting stronger and faster.
Amy Hicks, 85, could attest to that. Hicks, who currently excels in throwing events and is a highly recognized synchronized swimmer, was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2003. “What was I to do?” Hicks recalled in her Senior Games profile this October. “I had all of these tournaments and Senior Games coming up, and my doctor told me I could go, but to only exert myself at 80 percent and not try to set any records. So that’s what I did. I prepared by doing exercises and keeping myself pain free through therapy in flexibility, strengthening, and endurance. On occasion I did need pain meds, but I knew exercise was the key to needing them less often.”
A former PE teacher who now leads an arthritis aquatics program, Hicks speaks with authority on the subject: “You need to move. Of course, the type of arthritis makes a big difference. With rheumatoid arthritis you can exercise but you don’t go as vigorously or do as much, especially if you have a flare up. Be gentle, do less repetitions. I have osteoarthritis and need the full range of motion for all of my joints.”
“If you don’t move it,” says Hicks, “You will rust.”
Leverage your advantage
Bercovici also notes that older athletes do have some advantages over their spry competitors — big ones are mental toughness, resilience, and a general sense of personal equanimity that is often out of reach for younger competitors. You don’t have to look any further than 67-year-old swimmer Pat Gallant-Charette as a role model for determination and an ability to rebound from setbacks. Gallant-Charette began her open water swimming career in a tribute to her brother, who died at 34 after a heart attack. When she started, she had been out of the water for 20 years and was fearful that she couldn’t even make it two laps in a pool.
Gallant-Charette is within one swim of becoming the oldest person to ever complete the Oceans Seven — a prestigious list of the toughest channel swims in the world. Not all of Galant’s attempts have been successful — she has persevered through challenges like changing currents that left her sprinting at a standstill, and seasickness that forced her to abandon some attempts partway through.
In addition to being inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, Gallant-Charette has been nominated for the World Open Water Swimming Association’s “Woman of the Year” award five times since her sixtieth birthday.
She says she is inspired by the words of her son, who once told her “You can, if you try,” in response to her own self-doubt.
“When I reached 60, I thought to myself [that] it was time to start slowing down, thinking that it would all catch up with me, but I was wrong!” she wrote in a blog for Arena Water Instinct. “At 61 years old I had the strongest swim of my life, I swam the 33-mile Tsugaru Strait in Japan, in which I broke the World Record as the oldest woman to ever have swam it.”
Just Don’t Stop
Fred Schmid, 85, is a longtime CTS athlete who has won almost 30 national titles. He began riding after he got a bike from his wife as a 61st birthday present. “The fact that you’re older doesn’t mean you have to stop exercising — or that you can’t start,” Schmid, told the Chicago Tribune in 2015. “I’d get to the top of the hill at our house, and my legs were like rubber, and I was exhausted. Now I look forward to going up that hill.” Schmid continues to race, and most recently won another Cyclocross National Championship. As he said in an earlier CTS blog, “Just don’t stop.”
Paul Tetrick, grandfather of CTS athlete Alison Tetrick, was the one who got his granddaughter into cycling. He also won 17 national titles in his own right after picking the sport up at age 60. He passed away in 2018 year at the age of 87. As Alison wrote at the time, “Paul Tetrick, my Grampy, is riding his bike somewhere above us and his lessons and memory will live on forever. He showed us cycling and speed are ageless. Sport is for life. Nothing is impossible. He left us with records we will never break, accomplishments we can only strive for, and me with a life that is forever changed and inspired.”
I found no shortage of new sports idols when I looked for stories of athletes excelling beyond 80, 90, or even 100 years old — so perhaps my own athletic journey is really just beginning. To my fellow CTS athletes, here’s to 2019, and here’s to the future.