Michael Phelps
The incredible Michael Phelps

Gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, representing Uzbekistan, competed in her seventh Olympics in Rio at the age of 41.

American cyclist, Kristin Armstrong, won a gold medal in the individual road time trial in Rio, the third consecutive Olympics she has done so, at the age of 42.

Equestrian Phillip Dutton won a bronze medal in individual eventing for America at the age of 52.

Relative to Chusovitina, Armstrong and Dutton, swimmer Michael Phelps is a spring chicken. But at the age of 31, Phelps’ phenomenal Olympic career, particularly based on his results in Rio, is most definitely an outlier vis-a-vis his rivals and rival-wannabes. According to The Washington Post, “over the past 10 Summer Games, the oldest athlete to swim in the finals for the same events in which Phelps is scheduled to compete has been 29 years old, with the average age just under 22 years old. And, not surprisingly, times get slower as an athlete ages.” (Yes, Anthony Ervin winning gold in the 50-meter freestyle at the age of 35 is an even greater outlier.)

Michael Phelp's Aging Curve Compared_Washington Post

Role models are so important to aspiring athletes. And it’s not just adolescents and teenagers whose passions are ignited by their heroes. It’s Gen X. It’s even the Baby Boomers. They see Chusovitina and Phelps as trailblazers for those of us in our 30s, 40s and 50s, whose daily lives are filled with marketing meetings, children’s soccer matches, evening social gatherings, and attempts to overcome sleep deprivation on the weekends.

More and more commonly, men and women past their “prime” are making the time and taking the challenge to up their game in high performance athletics. The “Olympics” for athletes of age groups from 35 to over the century mark is the World Masters Games. The number of participants since 1985 has grown from over 8,000 to close to 30,000 in 2009, which was more than twice the number of athletes who took part in the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

Oksana Chusovitina in Rio

As the nations of the industrialized world see their populace age rapidly, the people with the most money and influence are the aged demographics. Clearly, their interest in staying healthy and happy grows as they collectively age. As the human body’s production of hormones that enhance the benefits of physical exertion diminish from the age or 35, we can feel very clearly our strength diminishing over time. But considerable research and thought is going into how to increase flexibility, strength and staying power the older you get.

And the research tells us that exercise, low intensity or high, done on a consistent basis, will yield positive results for practically everybody. But the fact of the matter is, our busy lives demotivate so many of us from making that daily effort. This personal coach explains that making the effort is just a matter of making a decision.

The hard part about this for maturing athletes is that job and family responsibilities may make getting to bed early difficult. You need to make a choice as to the type of life you want to lead. If you’ve made the decision that you want to live a healthy, fit life, then going to bed early is part of it. That will likely mean the end of midweek social events, skipping TV after dinner, and strict adherence to stopping work after 8:00pm.

But to get to competitive levels of athletic performance, no matter your age, you need to dream. Photojournalist, Susana Girón, has followed these silver athletes taking their pictures, and concluded that age is not an issue if you have that burning passion for excellence

Sport in the elderly is not simply an issue of health. It is said that once you become older, you stop dreaming and become less passionate about things. The bodies of these athletes might dwindle with each year, but the passion with which they live and face the events remains stronger than ever, especially as they become aware that every championship might be their last. Living with passion means to remain forever young.

Phillip Dutton in Rio
Phillip Dutton

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Oksana Chusovitina in Six Olympiads
Oksana Chusovitina in Six Olympiads

When she arrives at Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Games, she will have turned 41 years old. For most Olympians, that’s old. For female gymnasts, that’s ancient.

Oksana Chusovitina was selected as a member of the Uzbekistan’s women’s gymnastics team. And while Chusovitina will be far more than twice the age of her teammates and competitors, she will also have infinitely more experience. The Rio Olympics will be her seventh Olympic Games. Not only has she competed in seven Olympic Games, she has done so, essentially, for three different teams:

  • The Unified Team (participants from former USSR): 1992 Barcelona Games
  • Uzbekistan: 1996 Atlanta Games, 2000 Sydney Games, 2004 Athens Games, 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games
  • Germany: 2008 Beijing Games, 2012 London Games

Here is a basic fact. Since 1972, the all-around Olympic women’s gymnastics champions have been 20 years old or less, the majority of them being teenagers. There is a biological and evolutionary reason for this, according to a fascinating book I am currently reading on the science of athletic physiology, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, by David Epstein. He writes that girls and boys physically mature at practically equal rates until the age of 10. Top running speeds, for example, are the same for 10-year-old boys and girls. But boys get a significant boost in athletic prowess from the start of puberty around the age of 14. Girls at the age of 14 tend to peak physically in some respects. For example Epstein explains that the average female runner is already approaching her fastest lifetime sprint speed by the age of fourteen.

Epstein also explains that female gymnasts need slim hips and low centers of gravity to perform swiftly and agilely at the international level. Unfortunately for aspiring female gymnasts, biology conspires against them.

The Sports Gene Book Cover 2013Studies of Olympians show that an important trait of female athletes in certain sports is that they don’t develop the wide hips that many other women do. If elite female gymnasts go through a significant growth spurt in height or hips, their career at the top level is essentially over. As they increase in size faster than strength, the power-to-weight ratio that is so critical to aerial maneuvers goes in the wrong direction, as does their ability to rotate in the air. Female gymnasts are pronounced over the hill by twenty, whereas male gymnasts are still early in their careers.

In other words, Chusovitina is an outlier of significant proportions, an aging gymnast who has sustained the proper power-to-weight ratio while maintaining the training, the technique, the stamina and the mental strain to compete at an Olympic level.

She won a team gold medal in 1992, and a bronze medal in the individual vault competition in 2008. At the age of 41, can Chusovitina, still a top ten vaulter in the world, find Olympic glory one more time?