Olga Kotelko, 90 Year Old Masters Athlete

Aging And Dying Are Inevitable…

Olga Kotelko Masters Athlete

Olga pumping iron.

My grandfather, and then my father, died at age 67. That’s a hop and a skip from where I sit. Both died of cancer. The best guess for my Grandpa was that granite dust did him in. He spent his early days as a stone cutter, working around the state capital of Washington State.  He spent his days in a cloud of fine and microscopically sharp dust while turning the granite columns that adorned many of the municipal buildings between Seattle and Olympia. He didn’t smoke and had no history of other cancer. Dust was all his doctors could figure out. We still aren’t sure about my Dad. He smoked for twenty years but never had a problem with his lungs. He had skin cancer in his fifties and lived without medical issues until leukemia showed up. Within months, lymphoma piggy-backed onto the leukemia. Within another year, he had died.

There is much to learn about longevity and aging health. We know that consistent exercise is important for along and healthy life, including weight training and exercises that impact bone. We know how important a healthy diet is. Genetics clearly help but might not be the end-all-and-be-all that we once thought they were. But living long is only half of the equation. I want to live well. I want to be engaged. I want to pursue new goals and ideas and race my granddaughter in a 5k. And beat her. I want to hug my wife as she waves goodbye to the girls when they move to Paris. Re to be a famous artist and Madi to design snappy clothes for pets.

But Sitting It Out On The Bench Doesn’t Have To Be

Living well is the goal. One person who lived well is Olga Kotelko. She began competing in track and field events when she turned 77, about thirty years after most people have died inside. By the time of her death at 95 she had won hundreds of gold medals and held almost every master’s record for her events and age groups. How? What was unique about Olga? In many ways, says the author of What Makes Olga Run?, there was nothing unique about her. Most of her medical metrics were normal or close to it. She ate a healthy but not exotic or rigorous diet. She exercised daily. She maintained a positive outlook. But certainly, she was unique. Somehow all of those normal parts added up to an extraordinary whole. The book offers no magic. No crazy diets. Only good advice that is easy to follow for healthy and happy living. Following is my review of the book. It’s an interesting and provoking read.

What Makes Olga Run?, Bruce Brierson

Olga Kotelko was an elite masters track star who, upon her death in 2014, at age 95, held hundreds of gold medals in track and field, none of which she earned prior to her 77th birthday.

In What Makes Olga Run? Bruce Grierson jumps head first into Olga’s routines and thoughts and medical records to try to understand what makes her tick. What he finds is that this extraordinary woman is, by most metrics, not very extraordinary. There is no magic here. Readers looking for super foods, esoteric yoga mantras, or exotic training regimens won’t find them here. Olga’s story is remarkable in how unremarkable it is. Grierson follows Olga through just about every test one can think of: stress tests, DNA analyses, diets, psychological examinations – in every case she comes out normal or close to it. But somehow, in Olga, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Olga is extraordinary. At 77, when most people are dead or dying, she hires a Hungarian track coach and begins a daily training regimen. She eats a nutritious but not remarkable diet. She loves competition. She loves to win. She was upbeat and refused to dwell on the dark side of things. Somehow all of that added up to an uncommon life of steady and satisfying accomplishment.

The book is not meant to be a textbook. There are passages, especially concerning biology, that – in my humble opinion – could have been written more precisely. But precision in a book like this usually translates into boring. And the book is not boring. It is well written, reads easily, and is adequately documented.

There are three main take-aways:

  1. What you already know about good health is true. Eat well. Exercise. Sweat a little every day. Enjoy friends a family.
  2. Maintain a good attitude. Embrace optimism. Eschew pessimism. Keep a good perspective.
  3. Your bad habits can be reversed. You can improve your heart health. You can enjoy time with your family again. Every decision, every step, every bite represents a fork in the road that leads to an end that you chose.

Olga Kotelko Masters AthleteThe author closes with Nine Rules for Living that summarize simplicity and health. But for him, ‘Olga’s biggest gift’ is a change in perspective. He records her advice when he keeps hounding her for secrets:

Look around. These are your kids. This is your wife. This is your life. Its awesomeness is eluding you. Pay attention. Yes, there will come a time when you have genuine, life-threatening ailments. But, for now, stop your kvetching. And stop dreading birthdays that end in zeros. Those zeros can pull you under, like stones in your pocket. At your age, your story is not ending: you know that.

But what if you don’t want to be a track star at eighty? Or even at thirty? There is still plenty of good reading here. Olga is extraordinary especially because she refused to acknowledge her age as a limiting factor. She wasn’t stupid: she knew that an eighty-year-old woman isn’t going to compete on the same stage as Usain Bolt in the 100-meter dash.  But she never let that keep her from being interested or engaged or from working hard toward a goal. How many people do you know of any age who have given up already? Who have already succumbed to age? How many people do you know who are forty and are counting the days to retirement? You don’t have to be that person. An Olga has some good advice for you.

An uplifting read.

For more on the topic of healthy living and aging, read these posts:

Don’t forget the healthy basics
Book Review – Diet Cults
Book Review – A Short Guide to a Long Life
Yup. I’m turning sixty years old

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Olga Started somewhere. You will too. Here’s a great resource: