We here at The Masters Athlete enjoyed a significant game-within-the-Games during the just-concluded Rio Olympics. We’re talking about the Oldlympics—brilliant performances by middle-aged competitors. The drama was plentiful, and impressive.
Over the course of these 31st Games, middle-aged athletes not only reminded us that people over 40 can enjoy world-class fitness and skill, but also admirable passion and grace. “Gratuitous,” however, the graybeard contingent was not. These are the Olympics; you don’t earn a national-team slot by reminding your coach of some treasured auntie.
The 40-plus crowd came to Brazil looking for podiums, and some of them took home hardware. But our TMA gold goes to 41-year-old Uzbekistan gymnast Oksana Chusovitina (pictured above), who finished seventh in the women’s vault. For various reasons, we—and many others—think that the five-foot, 100-pound Chusovitina stood ridiculously tall.
“How many out there do you see like her?” says Jeb Tolley, a one-time elite gymnast who has owned Gymstrada Gymnastics in Virginia Beach, Virginia, for over 40 years.
Back Back Back in the Saddle
For middle-aged athletes, the 2016 Summer Olympics started beautifully. Only five days after the opening ceremonies and just hours before her 43rd birthday, American cyclist Kristin Armstrong (unrelated to Lance Armstrong) earned her third consecutive gold medal in the women’s individual time trial. Making Armstrong’s feat even more impressive: The mom with a day job rode hard for a good portion of the 88-mile women’s Olympic road race only three days earlier. The amazing Armstrong, who in a testimony to her talent, wisdom, and training had only come out of cycling retirement in early 2015, essentially called the road race a warmup.
Other great middle-aged moments emerged. Equestrian medalists included Germany’s 48-year-old Ingrid Klimke and 52-year-old US athlete Phillip Dutton. Dutton was competing in his sixth Olympics, and came from as far back as 15th place during the competition to win bronze in individual eventing. The shooting competitions were dotted with 50-somethings, too, and 41-year-old Hoang Xuan Vinh won the 10 meter air pistol event. The victory was Vietnam’s first ever Olympic gold.
Honor on the Track
And when lung power mattered at least as much as firepower? Statistically speaking, American marathoner Meb Keflezighi, 41, who won silver a dozen years ago at the Athens Games, finished a dispiriting 33rd. But Keflezighi—who courtesy of bad luck and a bad stomach ended up vomiting, dry-heaving, and falling his way to the finish, did not complain. Instead he saluted the event and his competition, and performed pushups at the finish line. Aussie Scott Westcott, 40, finished 81st.
American Bernard Lagat, who at 41 participated in his fifth Summer Games, won bronze in the men’s 5,000-meter race, and then he didn’t: Lagat crossed the finish line a credible sixth and, briefly, moved up to third when runners ahead of him were temporarily disqualified for technical infractions.
“To disqualify people when they didn’t gain an advantage is not the right spirit,” a respectful Lagat told reporters. “I like to know I earned my medal.”
Jo Pavey, the 42-year-old British runner who finished 15th in the 10,000-meter final (and two years ago won the same event at the European Championships, 10 months after giving birth to her second child), told nymag.com that her athletic achievements nowadays come without visiting a gym. She’s got kids.
“I do exercises in the lounge, often while multitasking, or with children sitting on me,” said Pavey.
That same excellent story largely focused on the increasing potential of aging bodies. An equally informative si.com story addresses age-related performance of notably young and old Olympians, citing how older endurance athletes have become increasingly adept at maintaining their cardiovascular capabilities. In short, they work hard, and take their rest and recovery very seriously.
“The trick for the older elite endurance athlete,” wrote Mayo Clinic human-performance expert Michael J. Joyner on si.com, “is to keep the intensity of their training up and at the same time avoid injury.”
A Gymnast Older than Grandma
But with sincere nods to our impressive cohort of aging endurance jocks—as well as equestrian and pistol-wielding Olympians—our top Oldlympics honors still go to gymnast Chusovitina. Rio was the Uzbeki athlete’s seventh Olympics (during her career, she has competed for several countries—it’s a long story). She won a gold for the former Soviet Union in the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games.
What makes Chusovitina singular is that she is truly singular. According to research cited by Joyner, while Olympic track and field athletes continue to trend older, Olympic gymnasts keep getting younger. In Rio competitions that were packed with teenage girls, 22-year-old US gymnast Aly Raisman answered to the nickname “Grandma.” Chusovitina’s son Alisher, meanwhile, is 17.
How does Chusovitina do it?
“She has to condition every day,” says Tolley, the longtime Virginia Beach gymnastics teacher, who has sent many students onto collegiate gymnastics programs, and has worked with national team athletes. “It’s constant training.”
Tolley says that Olympic-caliber gymnasts often train twice daily, frequently logging seven hours of gym time before going to bed. They work endlessly on speed, power, balance, flexibility, and yes, chutzpah.
Chusovitina told The New York Times that she only trains once daily for as little as two hours, and that she frequently fuels herself on coffee and dark chocolate. Over the years—the decades—she’s also had remarkably few injuries, and yet in Rio Chusovitina still attempted arguably the hardest vault of them all. The Produnova consists of a front handspring followed by 2.5 somersaults. Many gymnasts won’t attempt it.
Chusovitina didn’t nail the landing, but thankfully she also avoided mishap. She finished seventh out of eight vault finalists, and yet still won wide praise and media attention.
“Holy Geez… and I Can’t Even Touch My Toes,” tweeted none other than an admiring Sarah Palin.
“Chusovitina’s skill level has risen some, but she’s staying pretty much the same,” Tolley told me. “But hey—all I know is, when I was 41? I wasn’t competing.”