What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson

What Makes Olga Run?Olga Kotelko is a 93-year-old Canadian track star, part of an elite group that scientists call “super-seniors”—people in their 80s and 90s, even 100s, who are setting world records that compare favorably (in their age categories) with the best athletes in the world. At World Master’s competitions, Olga competes in 11 track events, including high jump, hammer throw, and the 100-meter sprint.

How is it that Olga is breaking records at an age when most people are breaking hips? This is what Grierson, Olga, and the scientists who study her want to find out. Much as we would like to find a “magic bullet” of youthfulness, it appears to be a combination of many factors, physical and psychological, that work together.

Raised on the bitterly cold and windy plains of Saskatchewan, Olga grew up with ten siblings on a farm where everyone carried heavy loads and walked long distances. However, Olga did not start systematic training until the age of 70. Scientists think that starting her intensive training late in life may have been to her advantage. Many young athletes pick up bad habits and over-train, both of which may cause them to burn out early. Olga refuses to do anything she does not feel comfortable doing. “I don’t have to prove anything,” she says.

On the other hand, she may have something to prove psychologically if not physically. Olga survived 10 years of an abusive marriage, being told by her husband that she was worthless and incompetent. It was clear to Grierson as he watched Olga beaming from the winner’s podium that she was enjoying being told by the applause of thousands how capable and inspiring she is.

Olga may be tough, but she is also loving. She is known for speaking kind words to her competitors and even slowing down a wee bit to let someone who is “a nice person” pass her on the track. She has strong community and church ties, and she lives in the basement apartment of her daughter’s home, always near family. She balances her go-getter attitude with being kind to herself. For example, when she travels she sometimes asks for a wheelchair at the airport. “Why not save my energy for the meet?” she says.

Far from being a dry, scientific treatise on aging, this book is the portrait of a lovable lady drawn by a man who clearly admires her spunk. What is her secret? Is it the organic vegetables from her garden, or is it a skeleton so strengthened by exercise that falling down a flight of stairs at age 93 broke not a single bone? Perhaps more than anything, what keeps Olga moving is doing what she loves to do.

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One Response to “What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson”

  1. Best New Books of 2014: Sharon S’s Picks | Wake County Libraries "Book a Day" Staff Pick Says:

    […] What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson What makes a 93-year-old woman participate in track events worldwide, and set records that compare (in her age category) with those of the best athletes in the world? Well, she loves doing it, and her ability to do it stretches our stereotypes about aging. She is not alone—there are other “super seniors” like her around the world. Bruce Grierson leads us through a fascinating investigation of what keeps them going strong. See my full review. […]

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