Many people in their 70s spend time doing things like gardening and golfing. Rare is the septuagenarian who decides it’s the perfect point in their life to enter the world of competitive sport.
But that’s exactly what West Vancouver’s Olga Kotelko did nearly 20 years ago. A retired teacher who turned 95 earlier this month, she was 77 when she left her recreational slo-pitch team to dive into track and field—not just for fun but to win. She trained for events like shot put, high jump, long jump, and sprinting. She holds 26 world records in her master’s category. And yes, there are many other seniors for her to compete against. She just happens to be among the oldest and fiercest.
Vancouver writer Bruce Grierson was approaching 50 when he met Kotelko a few years ago. Inspired and intrigued, he asked if she was as curious as he was about how she seemed to be defying aging. She was, and she agreed to set out on a quest that would see the two of them consult with exercise physiologists, gerontologists, psychologists, neurologists, geneticists, and other scientists and health experts to try to explain how this “little old lady” has become a champ at an age many people never even see.
The result is Grierson’s recently released What Makes Olga Run? The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives (Random House of Canada). It’s a scientific journey and a human-interest story that makes readers want to meet this woman, who Grierson says trains like a “madwoman” and is a “raging granny” on the track. Born in small-town Saskatchewan, Kotelko fled an abusive marriage while pregnant with her second daughter, and lost her first-born to cancer in 1999.
By looking at Kotelko’s astonishing capabilities and also her vulnerabilities, the book sheds light on questions for everyone to consider. Can we learn to live better, longer? And if so, how?
What Makes Olga Run? answers those queries with nine rules drawn as much from Kotelko’s own practices and philosophies as from medical research. But before that, it debunks many myths surrounding aging and looks at every possible contributing factor associated with growing old well, including body mass index, sleep, diet, stress, and the effects of resistance training.
“The question I get more than anything else is: ‘Is she just a genetic freak?’ ” Grierson says in an interview over coffee. “Genes and environment work together in complicated ways we’ll never understand, or at least not for a long, long time. So it’s always hard to say how much genetics helps you.
“I feel quite comfortable saying it’s more the way she lives her life than it is what she’s inherited,” he adds.
That’s not to say Kotelko doesn’t have some good genes going for her. She has outlived all of her 10 siblings. She has two copies of the so-called superstar gene, which contributes to her explosive power. (Most of the Olympic sprinters who’ve been tested for this one have it too.) Her genes indicate she has high intelligence, and people with her genotype get heart disease only about half as frequently as the average person. But her genetic makeup is far from perfect. She doesn’t have genes that help people lose weight easily on a workout regimen, nor does she carry a gene variant that helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease. She’s also more susceptible to colorectal cancer than most.
She does, however, have conviction: she believes firmly in things, such as the health benefits of the 90 minutes of reflexology she applies to her entire body every single night. She also practises kindness, constantly moves, and has fun.
She quickly became a role model for Grierson. He was 47 when his book project began and admits he was feeling old. He says he felt out of shape and was getting cranky. Spending time with Kotelko, though, helped him shift his perspective. Three years ago, he signed up for a 10-kilometre race. He came in second-last.
“It was humiliating to be just whipped,” Grierson says. “Guys were creating wind racing past me, and I was just trying to stay on my feet. Olga was like a coach. She was standing on the sidelines, and I could hear her cheering me on. It was really quite sweet.”
The race may have nearly done him in, but wanting to become more “Olga-like” has stayed with him.
“Knowing her has adjusted my sense of what’s possible in the second half of your life,” he says. “I was getting so discouraged, whereas she’s having another whole life after 77. That made me be a bit embarrassed about how grumbly I was getting about all the doors closing.”
Kotelko proves that doors can continue opening well into a person’s 90s and beyond. Grierson’s book will, at the very least, motivate you to exercise more. It might also inspire you, too, to be more like Olga.