Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Not Yet Ready for the Rocking Chair

Growing older has made me appreciate what a "masters" athlete can do. I was lucky early in my running career to have met two awesome women, Pat and Sally, who were the perfect role models for what an older athlete can accomplish. I ran with them in San Diego, when I could keep up with them. I was a new runner in my early 30s when I met them. Sally was in her 50s and Pat was in her late 40s. Sally ran marathons and even did the Ironman Triathlon in her 50s. Pat ran marathons and ultra-marathons. Both women are still very active. Sally, who is now in her 70s, recently ran the Las Vegas Half-Marathon and placed in the top half of her division. Pat, who is in her late 60s, is fitter than most women one-third her age. When she was 65, she won her division at the Lincoln (Nebraska) Half-Marathon by a fairly large margin. She also does archery, long distance cycling, and recently tried kayak water polo. Pat and Sally would be right at home in Garmisch, where the bike/running paths, ski slopes, and hiking trails are full of senior citizens.

Even though I'm over 50, I still haven't slowed down significantly. In fact, all of my personal records (PRs), except for the half-marathon, were set when I was over 40. One of my friends, who was an elite-level 800 meter runner, said that it's very unusual for runners to set PRs in their 40s. Over the years, I realized that it's important to listen to my body and train smarter instead of harder. For example, when I ran my first three marathons, I had a rather brutal training program. I couldn't wait for the race to be over so that I could rest. When I ran my most recent marathon, at age 48, I incorporated a lot of rest into my training. As a result, I looked forward to running the race and enjoying the experience. It was the most fun that I had running a marathon and I set a new personal record, taking 5 minutes off of my old PR.

There are several professional athletes who are considered "old" who I admire. The obvious "old" athlete who people in the States know is Brett Favre, the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. But there are older athletes in other sports who aren't as well-known as Favre, but their accomplishments are also worthy of admiration.

Oksana Chusovitina (USSR, Uzbekistan, Germany), gymmastics: When one thinks of gymnasts, the first image that comes to mind is a skinny 14-year-old girl. Oksana is now 35, a mother, and still competing. In 1991 at age 16 she was the floor exercise world champion. Twelve years later she won a world championship on the vault. In 2008, at age 33, she won the Olympic silver medal in vaulting and had her best finish (9th) in the all-around competition. Oksana has competed in a record 5 Olympic games (1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008) and is training for her 6th in 2012. She is the only active gymnast who competed for the former Soviet Union. Oksana competed for the Soviet Union and her native Uzbekistan and now competes for Germany. Here are a couple of Oksana's medal-winning routines:

1991 World Championship Floor exercise finals (gold):
2008 Olympic Vault Finals (silver):

Carlos Lopes (Portugal), distance running: Most marathon runners are in their late 20s or even their early 30s. Lopes was 37 when he won the 1984 Olympic marathon gold medal. Before his marathon success, he won a silver medal in the 10,000 meters in the 1976 Olympics, then seemed to have disappeared from the running scene. Lopes came to the 1984 Olympic marathon after nearly missing the games because of being hit by a car. His accident didn't stop him from winning gold and setting a new Olympic marathon record. The following spring, at age 38, he ran the Rotterdam Marathon and set a new world record. Lopes retired in 1985.

Patrick Jaerbyn (Sweden), Alpine skiing: Most Alpine skiers retire in their late 20s or early 30s. Jaerbyn is still competing on the World Cup circuit at age 41 and is the oldest currently active professional skier. Last year he competed in the Winter Olympics at age 40. Even though he didn't win a medal (he got injured in one of the races), he won the admiration of the spectators for being in the Olympics at his age. This season he is not slowing down. He had two top-10 finishes in downhill and Super-G races and will probably have a few more before this season ends.

Michael Walchhofer (Austria), Alpine Skiing: Walchhoffer is 35 this season and one of the older skiers on the World Cup circuit. He is the "old man" of the Austrian ski team. Before this season started, Walchhoffer said that it would be his last. He is certainly showing the others that getting older doesn't mean getting slower. This season he has won 2 downhills and one Super-G, and the season is nowhere near over. Last week he became the only skier to win the treacherous Bormio, Italy downhill three times. In addition, he is currently the leader in the overall World Cup standings and ranked first in both the downhill and Super-G events. It looks like Walchhofer will go into retirement from racing on a high note if he continues his current pace.

Here is Walchhofer winning a downhill in Val D'Isere, France in 2005.

While I will never reach the heights of Chusovitina, Lopes, Jaerbyn, or Walchhofer, I hope to be like my role models Pat and Sally and stay active when I become a senior.

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