What 95-year-old track star Olga Kotelko can teach us about living and aging well.
Editor’s Note: Olga Kotelko, the Canadian track-and-field star and an inspiration to athletes everywhere, died on June 24, 2014, at the age of 95. Kotelko, who began competing at the age of 77 and went on to set nearly 30 world records, suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage, according to the Vancouver Sun, her hometown newspaper. She is the subject of the the 2014 book What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson and recently self-published Olga: The O.K. Way to a Healthy, Happy Life. In her recent interview with Experience Life (below), Kotelko summed up the “O.K. Way” like this: “Never give up. You are never too old to chase a dream. Don’t be afraid.”
On paper, 95-year-old Olga Kotelko is the stereotypical little old lady. She’s a retired schoolteacher who stands a hair over 5 feet tall and weighs just 130 pounds.
On the track, however, she is a fleet-footed, hammer-throwing, javelin-wielding force to be reckoned with.
“I have no idea how 95 should feel,” Kotelko says. “I feel healthy, vibrant, and ready and willing to face each day. I don’t think I have changed much since my 50th or 60th birthday. I take care of my health; I listen to my body and help it to heal, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It’s not how old you are — it’s how you get old.”
Exactly how Kotelko is getting old has become the stuff of legend and the subject of intensive research. In the book What Makes Olga Run? (Henry Holt, 2014), author Bruce Grierson attempts to solve the mystery of Kotelko’s late-life accomplishments and identify what she can teach us about living longer, happier lives.
Since beginning her track-and-field career at the ripe age of 77, Kotelko has earned 26 world records and leads the 90-to-95 age group in the high jump, shot put, hammer throw, and 200-meter run.
Sure, part of her success is due to a dearth of competitors in her masters-level age bracket. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what magic flows through Kotelko’s veins and powers her nonagenarian muscles in a way people a fraction of her age only dream of.
“When you’re breaking records, rather than hips, at an age most people will never live to see, what gives?” Grierson asks.
He examines a variety of factors that contribute to Kotelko’s athleticism and aging: genetics, body type, upbringing, diet, sleep, temperament, emotional resilience, and the “miracle of exercise itself, compounded over a long, long lifetime.” Through Kotelko, he discovers that longevity doesn’t come from a fountain of youth. Rather, he outlines Kotelko’s nine rules for living, from “Keep Moving” (Rule 1) to “Begin Now” (Rule 9).
Kotelko, for her part, distills the rules this way: “Never give up. You are never too old to chase a dream. Don’t be afraid.”
Q & A With Olga Kotelko
Experience Life | Why track and field?
Olga Kotelko | Track and field has obviously become a new — and obsessive! — way of life for me. I am so grateful to be able to do this at my age. The benefits are immeasurable. First and foremost, it keeps me healthy and out of the hospital and senior-living accommodations. I am able to travel around the world. I love to meet people and make new friends. I love to compete. I love to win.
EL | Do you have a favorite event?
OK | Hammer throw, without a doubt. I feel the freedom it creates as I turn it round and round and see it fly like a bird. It boosts my morale and gives me confidence.
EL | When you hear people describe you as a “90-something track star,” how does that make you feel? Would you prefer to be recognized simply as a “track star”?
OK | I am comfortable with the “90-something,” but “track star” sounds too grand. I’d never use that term myself. I am still a “plain Jane.”
EL | In What Makes Olga Run?, author Bruce Grierson examines a plethora of possible explanations for your abilities, from genes and diet to personality. What do you think is the reason?
OK | My own view is that my personality is a big part of the story. I don’t let much get in my way, and I don’t let much bring me down.
EL | What role has exercise played in your life? Your abilities seem to have improved with age, suggesting that you are defying time.
OK | In my experience, exercise is the key to staying young. If you diligently follow an exercise program, it will add years to your life and life to your years, prevent illness, and help you manage the symptoms of aging.
EL | Some older people describe the process of aging as being betrayed by their bodies; they can no longer do things they once took for granted. Have you ever felt this “betrayal”?
OK | When I was turning 85, I realized that my thighs were losing some amount of muscle that I had 20 years earlier. Is this called “betrayal”?
EL | Can you describe a typical day in your life?
OK | Bed by 10 p.m., awake by 6 a.m. Every other night I wake around 2 a.m. and do my stretching exercises, in bed, until 3:30, then commence a second sleep. Total sleep time is the same. This is somewhat unusual but it works for me.
Diet — no processed foods. I eat four or five small meals a day. Dinner is three-quarters colored vegetables, one-quarter protein — fish, chicken, beef, etc. I’ve usually had enough starch earlier in the day, in a lunchtime soup.
EL | How many times have you been injured? Do you get sick?
OK | I’ve only ever had two injuries — most recently at the right shoulder rotator cuff, which forced me to throw with my other hand in competitions for a while. I don’t remember when I had a cold or flu.
EL | What advice do you have for people who want to try something new but feel limited by age, gender, or another factor?
OK | Do not set barriers. Get rid of grudges. Be optimistic and develop a wholesome, positive attitude. You are doing this for yourself, for your body. Laugh at yourself. Smile.
EL | Do you have plans to stop competing?
OK | I will stop when I drop.
Olga's Nine Rules for Living
Adapted from “What Makes Olga Run?” by Bruce Grierson
Rule One: Keep Moving
Very bad things happen when our bodies go offline for long stretches — including elevated risk of the five major killer diseases. Conversely, when we move, our bodies and brains both work better.
Rule Two: Create Routines (But Sometimes Break Them)
Committing the more mundane parts of our live to habit and routine frees up RAM for the things that matter to us. Our bodies crave regularity. But routines can also become ruts. A perfectly clockwork life means no stress, but also no adaptation.
Rule Three: Be Opportunistic
Spend your precious energy wisely. A time to run, a time to hit the hot tub, as Ecclesiastes almost said.
Rule Four: Be a Mensch
Kindness didn’t used to have to be justified: it was an obvious virtue. Then the evolutionary psychologists got their mitts on kindness and strengthened the case. It’s healthy for the tribe and healthy for us.
Rule Five: Believe in Something
Believe in what? It doesn’t really matter (within reason). Believe something, rather than nothing — while understanding that your belief may change tomorrow.
Rule Six: Lighten Up
Viewed from space, almost all our worries are trivial. The clock is running. There’s really no time for grumbling — only for grace and gratitude.
Rule Seven: Cultivate a Sense of Progress
We need to feel as if, somehow, we’re improving. But without periodic doses of “small wins,” our morale is crushed and we stop trying hard. Adjust your expectations for yourself, then improve upon them, even by the thinnest margin. That’s progress.
Rule Eight: Don’t Do It If You Don’t Love It
If it’s not fun, don’t do it. People can’t be guilted into lasting healthy behavior change. Should doesn’t work. Only want to works.
Rule Nine: Begin Now
Not only is midlife not too late to find fitness, providing we rev back up slowly, in some ways it’s the best time to go for it. We’re rested, we’re restless we’re ready.