Henry Holt and Co.
Ever since she turned 90, Olga Kotelko has presented a problem for organizers of the track meets she enters: Whom does she compete against?
The issue surfaced prominently in the 60-meter-dash final at the World Masters Indoor Athletics Championships, in Kamloops, British Columbia, in 2010. Olga found herself, well, in a class by herself. There just aren’t many nonagenarian sprinters—even when you draw from the whole planet. The next-oldest woman in this meet, Californian Johnnye Vallien, was 84.
So there Olga was, 91, bespandexed and elfin, lumped in with the men.
In lane one stood Orville Rogers, 91, a long-striding retired Braniff Airways pilot and the world-record holder in the mile for men over 90. Next to him: Belgian Emiel Pauwels, 90, another world-record middle-distance man (1,500-meter), in bright orange track spikes, who would later make everyone nervous as he ran most of the 3,000-meter final with his left shoelace untied. Front and center: Ugo Sansonetti, 92, a former frozen-food magnate from Rome, in a blue sleeveless skinsuit, his tanned biceps bulging like small baked potatoes.
Olga drew the inside lane, rounding out the field. She wore black tights and a long-sleeved white shirt—the modest uniform she wears no matter the weather.
She’d been worried about her start. She’s not a good starter. She can get rattled. Sometimes, when the gun sounds or even a fraction of a second before, she takes a step backward. But today she started clean and mechanically strong, piston-pumping her arms, generating enough wind to pin her hair back a bit.
It’s no longer strange to see geriatric runners: every big-city marathon has its share of valiant, white-haired competitors who spark bursts of applause as they shuffle past. But it is strange to watch 90-year-olds sprint. Kids and dogs and young adults run full-out. But old folks? The incongruity of that image inspired a television commercial that Ugo Sansonetti shot for Bertolli margarine not long ago. A runaway baby carriage is seen careening through the streets of Rome, until a fissure-faced old bystander—Ugo—springs into action and chases it down.
Sansonetti crossed the line first at Kamloops, in a world-record time of 11.57 seconds. He bounced around in the run-off area, arms overhead in triumph, as Rogers glided in behind him at 12.82. Olga came third, at just over 15 seconds. She looked concerned for Pauwels, the Belgian, who had caught a spike and crashed down hard, then picked himself up and limped in last.
She was cool with running against the guys. “That one fellow was pretty fast,” she said, on the way to the changing area. She had gotten used to this. When you’re the fastest 91-year-old woman on the planet, either you compete against younger women or you run against the guys.
Just how good is Olga? There are a couple of ways to put her in perspective.
She currently holds twenty-six world records. She set twenty world records in a single year, 2009. She hits these totals in part by entering more events than everybody else, including a couple that nobody else in the world her age attempts. She will often do six throwing events, three sprints, and three jumps. (At age 88, she considered adding the pole vault, but was deterred by practical considerations. “What do you do with the pole—strap it to the roof of the car? Check it on to the plane?”)
Track records, at the elite level, tend to fall by fingernail parings of time and distance: fractions of seconds, portions of inches. At the 2009 World Masters Athletics Championships in Lahti, Finland, Olga threw a javelin almost twenty feet farther than her nearest rival. At the World Masters Games in Sydney, Australia, in 2009, Olga’s time in the 100-meter dash—23.95 seconds—would have won the women’s 80–84 division—two age brackets down.
Olga stands five feet and a half an inch. She weighs 130 pounds. For her size—and this may be the most curious thing about her—she has extraordinary power. It can be surprising, after her slo-mo windup, to see how far the things she throws go.
On the hammer throw pitch in Kamloops, she took her place with the other competitors. Big guys with leather gloves paced around, shaking their hands out. Olga removed her glasses. There was a sudden and brief sense of menace; when a little old lady starts swinging a three-pound cannonball around her head, a good outcome is not guaranteed. But the thing sailed, straight and true. “If I spun I could throw it farther,” Olga says, but after watching somebody very old fall that way she has decided not to risk it.
Olga got more leg into the second throw. But the trajectory wasn’t what she liked. She made a little swan’s head gesture with her hand, to remind herself. Routinely, Olga performs better on every subsequent attempt as she recalibrates and tries again. It’s like watching a marksman bracket the bull’s-eye and then draw in: 12.72 meters. 13.37. 13.92. In ten minutes she added four feet of distance. “New world record,” a disembodied voice said over the loudspeaker.
There is a formula called “age-grading” that’s used to put the performances of older athletes in perspective. Age-graded scores tell us how impressed we should be by what a masters athlete—placed in categories from ages 35 to 105—just did. A set of tables plots a given performance against the expected decline of the human body, and expresses it as a percentage. So, theoretically, 100 percent is the high-water mark for a human being of that age.
But a number of Olga’s marks—in shot put, high jump, 100-meter dash—top 100 percent. In Sydney she threw the shot put 5.6 meters—which age-grades out at 119 percent. If you plug Olga’s 23.95 100-meter-dash time from Sydney into the tables, you find it’s exactly equivalent to American Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner’s prevailing, suspicious, and thought-to-be-untouchable world record of 10.49 seconds.
Remarkably, when you age-grade, you find Olga is not only holding her own but in some cases getting better—which suggests that either the tables are wonky or Olga is. Most likely both are true. “She throws off the curve, because she’s doing things nobody’s ever done,” says Ken Stone, editor of masters-track.com, the watering hole of the masters track community. (Motto: “Older, Slower, Lower.”) But at the same time, some recent performances speak for themselves. “I threw the hammer farther this year than I did two years ago,” she mentioned recently, offhandedly. “How do you explain that?” No two ways about it: Olga is defying, or rewriting, our understanding of the retention of human physical capability.
When people hear how old she is, they seem to look at her more deeply, at her face. To be blunt: she is not aging normally.
“How old do you feel?” I asked her on her 91st birthday.
She thought about that. “Fifty?” She gave a half shrug. “I still have the energy I had at fifty,” she said. “More. Where is it coming from? Honestly, I don’t know. I wish I knew. It’s a mystery even to me.”
They say she is like Grandma Moses, in the sense that she found her calling very late in life. But while Grandma Moses took up painting out of desperation, to make ends meet, Olga took up track, at age 77, for fun. A dozen years retired from her career as an elementary school teacher, she still had lightning in her that needed grounding.
For the first half of her track career—till around age 85—she coasted under the radar, quietly breaking world records within a subculture obscure enough (track and field for old people!) that many people still don’t know it exists. But since she turned 90, media interest in Olga has made it hard for her to hide. Reporters from around the world have made pilgrimages to her home on the flank of Hollyburn Mountain, overlooking the Pacific Ocean in West Vancouver. There is usually pleasant chitchat, and the reporter, having heard the jokes that the fountain of youth burbles up in her backyard, just behind the organic vegetable garden, makes an excuse to snoop around.
Because, seriously: when you’re breaking records, rather than hips, at an age most people will never live to see . . . what gives?
Aging is supposed to be one of those nonnegotiables: just the cost of doing life. It is, as the Stanford professor of medicine Walter Bortz put it, “a stern expression of the Second Law of Thermodynamics from which there is no respite.” So how do you begin to think about someone like Olga, short of demanding to see her birth certificate or otherwise trying to debunk her story? What seems to be required is a leap in the way we understand the aging process, as scientific advancements slowly reveal clues.
Indeed, for a stage of life that 90 million baby boomers in North America alone are barreling toward, surprisingly little is known about old age. (Or maybe it’s not so surprising: old age was a nonissue in human history until very recently. More than half the people who have ever reached age 65 are alive today, some demographers believe.)
But lack of data has never stood in the way of forceful opinion. Just about everyone has a guess about what makes Olga run. It’s genes. It’s diet. It’s temperament. It’s her unusual paleo sleep patterns. It’s the fighting spirit of the Cossack general from whom she is descended. It’s energy: she is vibrating at a higher frequency than most anyone else. It’s the miracle of exercise itself, compounded over a long, long lifetime. It’s performance-enhancing drugs. (Actually, we can rule that one out: she’s clean.)
In the morning—very early or merely early, depending on the day—Olga gets up and puts the kettle on for Krakus, a Polish coffee substitute made from roasted flax, barley, and beetroot. Then she heads into the bathroom to wash her face. The woman looking back at her in the mirror contains multitudes. She is the sweet-natured grandma with a competitive streak so ferocious she aims to set marks that eclipse the past greats and make up-and-comers think about maybe trying out scrapbooking instead. The farm girl who outlived ten siblings and one of her two daughters, and ponders what is being asked of her, the survivor. The levelheaded pragmatist with abiding faith in water, reflexology, and a curious routine of massaging and stretching her muscles in the dead of night.
Olga and I met four years ago. I was one of those nosy writers who showed up at her home: the in-law apartment in the basement of her daughter and son-in-law’s house.
It was a tidy space. Her own paintings of landscapes, marinas, and flowers from the garden hung on the walls. She offered tea. She had kind eyes and carefully applied lipstick and a shy demeanor. It was hard to reconcile this gentle person with the figure conjured by the growing mythology—a woman whose warrior fire is so intense that when she first announced she was interested in track, and a well-meaning friend said, “The event you want is the racewalk,” the advice literally did not make sense to her. Seriously? Walking or racing: which were they talking about here?
I’d hoped we could go to the running oval at the local high school so I could observe Olga in action. But it was pounding rain outside, so instead we stayed in and talked. We went through her notebooks documenting thirteen years of increasingly unlikely levels of achievement in track and field. At the end she cracked open the door to a closet. It looked like what Geraldo had hoped to find in Al Capone’s vault. Gold shone forth. Hundreds of medals hung from groaning hooks.
If a writer can become infected by a story, that’s what happened to me that day. Olga started to feel more interesting, more important than everything else I was thinking about. She tolerated my endless questions, probably because they were the same kinds of questions she had about herself. Eventually we struck a deal: we would become a team. We would explore the mystery of her together. She would offer herself up to science while I took notes. We would tap the expertise of some of the top practitioners of exercise physiology and gerontology, neuropsychology and evolutionary medicine.
To be honest, I had a secondary, selfish motive. I felt a personal stake in what the data about Olga would reveal, because I had my own mystery to solve.
You see, I used to be fit, too—not Olga-fit, but fit. I started exercising, in a pretty committed and deliberate way, when I was a skinny kid of nine. I got good tennis coaching and started beating adults, via a style of steady, craven retrieval that wore them out (and ticked them off). A running addiction that took hold around age twenty ensured that I kept grinding out workouts into my thirties and forties. Pairs of Nikes—each dutifully retired after six hundred miles—piled up in the closet like cordwood until:
Boom. Something . . . gave. Age flooded in all at once. It really did feel that sudden. Gone, just like that, the jump, the stamina, the drive, the memory, the hair. Gone, any right to use the noun “performance,” in any context. And with those changes came a fairly radical shift in attitude. Each sunrise no longer dialed up a sense of hope but resignation.
How does this happen? I was 47. Could it be the inevitable midlife swoon we’re warned about, the one that starts with stretch jeans and topical ibuprofen and ends up with saltless dinners in the extended-care wing? Well, clearly it’s not inevitable, because there before me was Olga. Whatever was happening with her was the opposite of what was happening to me. If she was the paragon of healthy aging, I was a proxy for every once-hale boomer now alarmingly on the skids.
Some serious sleuthing was in order. It would require going back in time to peek in on Olga as her current self was still under construction. What was she doing, at my age and younger, that was so forward-thinking, so right (or maybe just so lucky)? And could those habits be wrenches to fix the mistakes the rest of us are making, before it’s too late?
Copyright © 2014 by Bruce Grierson Bruce Grierson is the author of the books Culture Jam and U-Turn. He has been a freelance writer for twenty-five years. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Psychology Today, among other publications. He lives in North Vancouver, Canada.