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What Makes Olga Run: 94-year-old teaches about aging well

Jan. 21, 2014 — 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.

January 21, 2014  By Lauren La Rose The Canadian Press

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.

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."


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.)

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

"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

"I feel like I’m righting the ship somewhat by going to school on what Olga does."

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."

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