TIME­LESS track star

Nona­ge­nar­ian draws sur­pris­ing strength from early hard­ships

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

And no, those aren’t ty­pos. She is 94, and 17 of her world records are in her cur­rent age group of 90 to 94. And no, that’s not a typo ei­ther. There is a 90-to-94 year-old cat­e­gory at masters ath­let­ics cham­pi­onship track meets. So­cial-science writer Bruce Gri­er­son looks at ev­ery as­pect of what makes Kotelko run. He seeks an­swers through DNA test­ing, evo­lu­tion­ary the­ory, and per­son­al­ity tests. He stud­ies her life, her faith, her sleep­ing pat­terns, her diet and her train­ing. Gri­er­son ex­plores why some of us might be Ol­gas of the fu­ture while most of us will have trou­ble warm­ing up the rock­ing chair on the ve­randa at the old folks’ home. Even Kotelko isn’t sure where her en­ergy comes from, but she guesses she has the en­ergy level of a 50-year-old. She comes across as the quiet, grand­moth­erly type un­til she ex­plodes on the track in her 11 events (mak­ing her a nona­ge­nar­ian un­de­cath­lete). Van­cou­ver-based Gri­er­son — a five-time win­ner of Cana­dian Na­tional Magazine Awards whose work also ap­pears in Amer­i­can and British pe­ri­od­i­cals — makes it clear Kotelko, also Van­cou­ver­based, is a pow­er­house in more ways than the mere phys­i­cal. How has she slowed the ag­ing process? Prob­a­bly a com­bi­na­tion of things, Gri­er­son sur­mises. Hard­ship early in life tends to form strong char­ac­ter, and strong char­ac­ter of­ten goes hand-in-hand with longevity. Kotelko grew up in a lov­ing Ukrainian fam­ily on a De­pres­sion-era Saskatchewan farm, milk­ing cows as soon as she was big enough to lift a bucket. She washed and ironed 15 sets of cloth­ing, baked 12 loaves of bread at a time, lugged eggs and but­ter to sell in tiny Vonda, Sask., and walked four kilo­me­tres to school. She sur­vived a bru­tal mar­riage. When her abu­sive hus­band pulled a knife on Kotelko, preg­nant with her sec­ond child, she de­fied him and ev­ery tenet she’d ever been taught and walked out with her eight-year-old daugh­ter. It was 1953, and she con­sid­ered her­self the first sin­gle mother ever. She went back to school to qual­ify as a teacher. Kotelko came late to track, as did all the other se­nior ath­letes Gri­er­son writes about. She was 77 be­fore she be­gan com­pet­ing, about the age Grandma Moses was when she started paint­ing. Gri­er­son floats the the­ory that se­nior ath­letes achieve their phys­i­cal prow­ess later in life be­cause they can. Ath­letes who ex­cel in their youth gen­er­ally side­line them­selves with in­juries long be­fore Kotelko’s age. The hu­man body can only be pushed so hard be­fore it breaks down. And there could well be a men­tal com­po­nent. You may be world cham­pion in your 20s or 30s, but you can’t stay there, so you walk away. Just as im­pos­si­ble — and per­haps just a tad pa­thetic — is a stab at mak­ing a come­back, and ath­letes know that. Gri­er­son says, in a sly ref­er­ence to marathoner Bruce Jen­ner, it’s far bet­ter to marry and father a few Kar­dashi­ans than linger and fail in the ath­letic world. The book is a se­ri­ous search for the foun­tain of youth, but Gri­er­son makes it an amus­ing quest thanks to his hu­mour, wel­come among all the sci­en­tific re­port­ing. Per­haps most amus­ing is his re­ac­tion when it dawns on him that he is ag­ing faster than Kotelko. In­spired by his sub­ject, Gri­er­son de­cides to en­ter a track meet with Kotelko. He is filled with hope that, although he’d com­pete in the 45-to-50 age cat­e­gory, his time in the 10,000-me­tre event would qual­ify as a win in the 80-to-85 cat­e­gory. His goal was to be the “fastest damn 80-year-old in the world.” Sadly, it was not to be. The im­age of Kotelko and an­other se­nior ath­lete help­ing a limp­ing, hurt­ing Gri­er­son off the track where he’d col­lapsed just past the fin­ish line is en­dur­ing and en­dear­ing. Per­haps it would have made a bet­ter im­age for the book cover than that of Kotelko mid-flight in the long jump, in­spir­ing as that photo is. While not ac­tu­ally a self-help book, Kotelko’s story will in­spire the mid-life reader to ques­tion why they are more like Gri­er­son than they are like Kotelko. For her part, Kotelko can’t wait to turn 95 and be the new kid on the block in a new age cat­e­gory. All those juicy world records to be bro­ken has her rub­bing her hands in an­tic­i­pa­tion — the same hands that help make 500-dozen per­o­gies at her church ev­ery other Tues­day, pinch­ing the lit­tle en­velopes of dough closed for eight hours straight. That’s the type of en­ergy mid-life read­ers seek, and of­ten around this time of year. How op­por­tune that this book should hit the mar­ket just as many mid-lif­ers and oth­ers hit the gym, heads swim­ming with New Year’s res­o­lu­tions. Kotelko’s story — and Gri­er­son’s, too — will in­spire read­ers to keep those res­o­lu­tions and make this the year they get ac­tive and healthy. No, re­ally.

Julie Carl is the Win­nipeg Free Press as­so­ci­ate ed­i­tor, en­gage­ment. She vows to start run­ning as

soon as the weather breaks. No, re­ally.

What Makes Olga Run? The Mys­tery of the 90-Some­thing Track Star and What She Can

Teach Us About Liv­ing Longer, Hap­pier

Lives By Bruce Gri­er­son Ran­dom House Canada,

228 pages $30

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