BECAUSE WE WANT TO
Steve Trew looks at why triathletes are racing well into old age
itting down to write this, today is the 70th birthday of one of my best friends, my almost-twin and triathlon superstar, Desi McHenry. Desi’s won three age-group world championship titles representing Ireland and is still going strong, training and racing even in his advanced years.
“So what,” I hear you say. “There are loads of guys that age still racing, it’s no big deal.” And that is my point exactly; there are still loads of us older guys still racing. But it most defi nitely wasn’t always like that. You see, the world has changed. Back in the day when the world was much younger than today, it wasn’t the done or the accepted thing to be still racing, still doing physical exercise when you got past your mid-twenties. Back then you fi nished school or college or university and you went out to work to
Searn a living. That was how it was, that was how it would be forever. Once you fi nished your educational years, the world got real; it got its own back on you, so you went out to work because you had to. Any spare time that you might have had in education just disappeared, gone forever. Except it wasn’t forever.
Now this isn’t meant to be a diatribe on society, sociology, living standards, or anything like that, but the world really did change. I still remember being sent down to the shops a few years after the Second World War clutching the coupons that were needed to buy certain foods. My failing mind tells me that it included meat, eggs, cheese. Can you imagine that now? And more than a few of my lovely age-group friends will be nodding their heads and recalling those half-forgotten images. The idea of actually making a living from professional sport apart from football, rugby league and a tiny number of other sports would have been ludicrous, it just didn’t happen. And then we got richer, more healthy, had more leisure time, fewer physical working hours, and generally more time to spend on ourselves.
I was a swimmer through school and college. Then I started teaching and that was it, my career took over. Swimmers didn’t exist after the age of 22. Although, running became my new swimming and so followed my early introduction to triathlon. The idea back then that champion American swimmer Michael Phelps would span five Olympic Games from Sydney when he was only just past his 15th birthday (5th in the 200 metres butterfly) right through to Rio 2016 at the age of 31 would have been unthinkable. Think also of the USA’s Anthony Ervin who took gold in the 50 metres freestyle at Sydney at 19-years- old and then won gold again at Rio in the same event at the almost pensionable age for a swimmer of 35! It is not just the ages compared to then and now, it is also the longevity of a sporting career. And now, of course, it is not that unusual.
One of the differences is money. A professional swimmer back in the Sixties? Don’t be ridiculous! Professional swimmer now? Yeah, why not? Why would you stop doing something that you love when you can be paid to do it? It’s a no-brainer.
For our professionals in whatever sport there is also the support team to go along with the money. Preparation is better, professional coaches are paid, injuries are prevented and as a result athletes’ careers are extended.
But that’s the pro game. How come our age-groupers are still going strong at 50, 60 and 70 years young? The short and truthful answer is because we can.
Because we think differently to the way we did five decades years ago, because we have a different mindset to back then, and because we believe our bodies can go on and on, mainly because we actually look after ourselves better. Maybe we know a little bit more, maybe we are a little bit more aware.
Or, maybe it’s as simple as this: it’s because we want to. At the swim session today at 5.55am, 18 masters’ swimmers aged between 33 and 70 years. Why were we there? Because we wanted to, and because we can.