For 94-year-old Canadian Olga Kotelko, it's not the high jump, javelin
throw, pole vault or sprint that poses the biggest fitness challenge. It's
finding someone age-appropriate to compete against.
Kotelko, a Vancouver-based retired schoolteacher, took up track and field at
age 77. She has a closet full of medals, but with so few other women athletes
in her age bracket, she often finds herself competing against 80-to
85-year-olds, or men.
"I love competing against athletes my own age but if I don't have any,
I'll compete against myself," said Kotelko, who sprints,
throws and jumps in 11 track and field events.
Still going strong
Kotelko defies the standard image of aging and typifies what scientists call
compression of morbidity. She has managed to postpone the onset of chronic or
debilitating illness and is still going strong.
Born on a farm in Saskatchewan, Kotelko played softball in her youth, but
did not take up another sport until after retirement, when she became addicted
to track and field.
To keep her edge, she works out for at least an hour and a half every day.
She takes a water aerobics class three times a week, and regularly does stretching
exercises, deep breathing, and reflexology
for her hands and feet.
"I'll end up with splits," said Kotelko, who often hits the
exercise mat in the middle of a sleepless night.
The secret to ageing well
Canadian author Bruce Grierson lives near Kotelko. While bedevilled by his
own midlife aches
and pains, he was so astonished by her feats that he persuaded her to allow
scientists to study her in hopes of uncovering her secret to ageing well.
His recent book "What Makes Olga Run " chronicles her story and
the test results.
"She was curious about her own physiology, so she agreed to be a bit of
an open book," Grierson, 51, said.
The results of the scientific studies at The Beckman Institute in Urbana,
Illinois, which did a battery of
MRIs , memory and cognitive tests on Kotelko, show that her health and
prowess are mainly due to a combination of good habits, a positive attitude,
and her naturally driven personality.
"It's impossible to tease out what's driving the bus," he said,
"But genes aren't the half of it with Olga. It's the way she has lived her
Brain of a younger person
Tests showed that, by some measures, Kotelko has the brain of a 50- or
60-year-old, according to Grierson. Often the gap between brain and skull grows
with aging but Kotelko's resembles that of a much younger person.
Her hippocampus, a small region of the brain associated with memory and
spatial navigation that is known to respond well to exercise, looks especially
But Grierson said she showed signs of ageing in other areas, and despite
Kotelko's abilities, she finds it difficult to learn new techniques.
McGill University in Montreal conducted physiological tests that are
ongoing. Scientists there are preparing to analyze her blood to see if anything
about it could explain her vigour.
Kotelko said she avoids
injury by keeping her body tuned up, not training when it rains, and eating
four or five small meals a day.
"She's very attuned to what her body is telling her. She doesn't get
overstressed," Grierson said.
"Her high jump may not be super high, but she still springs off the
ground with good technique," he explained. "She's rare. It's called
compression of mortality: You go great guns till almost the very end."
Dr Robert E. Sallis, a physician with the American College of Sports
Medicine, explained it as squaring off the geriatric curve that plots
functional capacity, versus age.
"People who are inactive tend to lose functional capacity much earlier
than those who are active," Sallis said.
But those who remain active and fit can maintain a high functional capacity,
often almost until they die.
"So you see a squaring of their geriatric curve and a high functional
capacity right up until the end," he said.
But for Kotelko it's all about living a high-quality life.
"I don't feel my body's old," she said. "I don't know what
(Picture: A running track from Shutterstock)