TORONTO — Holding 26 world records and earning hundreds of medals would be significant achievements for any star athlete — let alone a retired schoolteacher who first took up track and field at age 77.
With her 95th birthday looming on March 2, Olga Kotelko isn’t inclined to look in the rear view at her accomplishments — she’d rather set fresh goals for the road ahead.
The Vancouver resident is already scheduled for meets in Kamloops, B.C., and Budapest, and is aiming to participate in at least one each month this year, with 100-metre dash, long jump and javelin among the many events in her repertoire.
As a competitor on the masters circuit which features other veteran participants, Kotelko’s lofty medal haul and athletic accomplishments later in life have been a focal point of fascination.
But asked for her own personal theories on why she has excelled, the kindly Kotelko offers only humility.
“I thought to myself this is something that I can do, that I enjoy it. I really do like competing and I stayed with it, and that’s what I’m doing now — and I don’t expect to stop. I don’t see any reasons why I should stop,” she said, a slight rasp trickling into her delicate, lilting voice.
“It’s good for me, it’s good for my health, and what I really want to do is share this experience of myself and my life with the people.”
Award-winning writer Bruce Grierson spent more than a year working on a lengthy profile on Kotelko for the New York Times published in 2010. But after extensive research, he felt there was more still to be explored, forming the basis of his new book “What Makes Olga Run?” (Random House Canada.)
“There were so many dimensions to Olga’s story that weren’t particularly germane just to the science. It seems to be just about human flourishing that was bigger than the scope of the magazine piece. And I thought: ’Yeah, now we’re into something bigger.’
“Not only can we talk about the science, but more and more, I like to share Olga with people, because I was really becoming beguiled by her personality and her strategies and all these things that are different than the science.”
Billed as a modern-day quest for the fountain of youth, the book explores how Kotelko and several other seniors continue to compete and thrive at a stage in their lives where many of their peers are slowing down rather than picking up the pace. In addition to undergoing tests of cognitive skills, muscle tissues and more, Grierson ruminates on whether other aspects of Kotelko’s life can help explain her physical prowess.
Born in Vonda, Sask., northeast of Saskatoon, Kotelko was the seventh of 11 kids raised on a farm during the Depression. She later left an abusive marriage to an alcoholic husband, heading west to forge her own path as a single mother in the 1950s. Her eldest daughter, Nadine, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 53, and died in 1999.
“That resilience that was kind of forged by having to overcome some tough stuff, that, to me, was a significant part of the story and still, I think, is a part of who Olga is — a big part of it,” said Grierson.
Still, there’s no question that her commitment to physical fitness plays a pivotal role.
Prior to her track training, Kotelko joined a softball league at age 70, playing five positions. She attends Aquafit classes three times a week. Her schoolyard training sessions involve intervals of jogging and walking, as well as several shot put throws and long jump attempts.
She also dedicates a key part of her downtime to keeping moving — even at the expense of sleep. While still lying in bed in the wee hours, Kotelko will devote 90 minutes to her self-customized “OK” exercise program that she’s followed for more than a decade, kneading her skin and muscles before she falls asleep.
Kotelko said she avoids fast food restaurants and eats everything in moderation, consuming small portions about four to five times daily.
Rather than viewing exercise as a fixed moment during the day, Grierson said the fact that Kotelko is consistently active has helped reshape his own definition of fitness.
“Olga grew up on a farm where she just did stuff all day long. You didn’t work out and just sit — you just moved. And she kept that habit going throughout her whole life. We’re now learning from the research that that’s the way you’ve got to do it. You just have to stay in motion.
“If you have to even choose between exercise training and not exercise training and moving around and just gardening and being active … and obviously you want to do both … you’d do the second one,” he added. “It’s more important to move than to be fit in the way that we think of being fit, aerobically fit.”
The book also sees the middle-aged Grierson parallel his own athletic ability to that of his subject, which includes taking part in a 10,000-metre race with Kotelko cheering him on from the sidelines.
“That was the hardest thing I think I ever did — harder than even some of those marathons — just to get through that just 10K. But I’d been feeling so unfit. I got winded not (long) before that playing Barrel of Monkeys with my kid,” he recalled.
“I feel like I’m righting the ship somewhat by going to school on what Olga does.”
While Kotelko said she’s treasured all of her achievements, carrying the Olympic torch as part of the relay for the 2010 Vancouver Games was a particular standout.
“I think that it’s once in a lifetime that you get an opportunity like that, but over 750 gold medals is quite treasured — and I give my medals away, I don’t keep them. Because why do I need 800 medals? At this point, I know I’m going to get some more.”
Rules for living longer, happier lives
What Makes Olga Run? author Bruce Grierson has written nine rules for living a longer, happier life which were inspired by his book’s central subject, 94-year-old Canadian track star Olga Kotelko.
“We’re all individual and there’s so much variation between people. But there’s enough things that Olga does that the science backs up that I felt comfortable about saying: ‘These nine things most people will benefit from,”’ he said.
1. Keep Moving
Move continually, even when you’re not exercising. “When we move, our bodies and brains both work better. We think faster, process information more accurately, and remember more.”
2. Create Routines (But Sometimes Break Them)
“Committing the more mundane parts of our life to habit and routine frees up RAM for the things that matter to us.”
3. Be Opportunistic
“Spend your precious energy wisely.” Conserve energy when you can, but when you need to go for it, go for it.
4. Be a Mensch
“Doing good doesn’t just feel good, it works. It’s healthy for the tribe and healthy for us.”
5. Believe in Something
“Belief is a trait of temperament.” People who embrace life’s puzzles as opportunities for problem-solving because of larger beliefs tend to thrive.
6. Lighten Up
“Managing stress is staggeringly important in terms of flipping genetic switches.”
7. Cultivate a Sense of Progress
According to studies of life satisfaction and human motivation, we all need to feel like we’re improving. Identify your expectations, adjust them to allow for “small wins,” then improve upon them.
8. Don’t Do It If You Don’t Love It
“If it’s not fun, don’t do it. That’s easy — because you won’t if it isn’t. People can’t be guilted into lasting healthy behaviour change. Should doesn’t work.”
9. Begin Now
“Not only is midlife not too late to embark on this, providing we rev back up slowly, in some ways, it’s the best time for it. We’re rested, we’re restless, we’re ready.”
Source: Random House Canada