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What Makes Olga Run: The Full Scoop On The 94-Year-Old Track Star

Olga Kotelko embraces her rivals after winning the 100-meter dash at the 2009 World Masters Athletics Championships in Lahti, Finland. Photo: Ken Stone of masterstrack.com, used with permission. One shows her

Olga Kotelko (right) embraces her rivals after winning the 100-meter dash at the 2009 World Masters Athletics Championships in Lahti, Finland. (Photo: Ken Stone / masterstrack.com, with permission.)

“Most inspiring thing I’ve read in a long time,” I said happily to myself as I turned the last page of “What Makes Olga Run? The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives.”

At the  World Masters Athletics Championships at Sacramento State University in July, 2011, Olga Kotelko (Photo: Chris Stone / masterstrack.com) won the event with a mark of 5.32 meters (17 feet, 5 1/2 inches). (Photo: Chris Stone / masterstrack.com, with permission.)

At the World Masters Athletics Championships at Sacramento State University in July, 2011, Olga Kotelko won the event with a mark of 5.32 meters (17 feet, 5 1/2 inches). (Photo: Chris Stone / masterstrack.com, with permission.)

You may have caught author Bruce Grierson’s 2010 profile of Olga Kotelko in the New York Times Magazine, and her appearance on On Point. (And she was just on “The Today Show,” too.)

But Grierson’s new book offers a much fuller look at the broader context — the science of aging, and exercise — and her own particulars, from her eating habits to her genes. I spoke with Bruce about the Olga Phenom and what it can teach us. Our conversation, edited:

How old is Olga, as we speak?

She’s 94; she’ll be 95 on March the 2nd, so that’s a new category.

That’s right, an even emptier age category in the Masters Track and Field events where she competes.

You’ve never seen anyone as excited about a birthday as she is about turning 95. What’s cool about Master’s Track is that they’ve framed it so you really do get excited about getting older, because it means you’re closer to this next category, where competition is yet thinner and the chances of you winning a gold medal are yet better. So instead of dreading birthdays, everybody in this whole milieu is excited to grow older. It’s pure genius.

The question of the title, “What Makes Olga Run,” is certainly interesting — her motivation — but my biggest question is “How can Olga run? At an age when most people hobble?”

You mean, how is it possible that somebody seems to be staving off or forestalling the normal effects of aging? What everyone wonders is, can we be like that? How sui generis is this woman? And how unusual? And that leads to the question, is it all genetics? Because if it’s all genetics, that’s still cool, she’s still interesting, but it doesn’t mean as much to the rest of us if there’s nothing we can do to be a little bit more like her.

The inspiring idea is to ask, ‘Where are my opportunities to grow?’ She asks that still, even in her mid-90s.

So we tried to investigate that, by doing genetic testing, to the extent you can do it, and just looking at her family history, that’s a big one: If she comes from a long line of long-lived people and all her siblings are long-lived and her parents were, then you can start being quite confident that genes are driving the longevity part of this — but she doesn’t. The rule of thumb is that longevity is two-thirds nurture and one-third nature – only a third of it is our genes and the rest is how we lived, and what we’ve been through, and our habits and our thoughts, and what we’ve done with the hand that we’ve been dealt.

Not to deny, though, she’s got some lovely genetics at some level: Her hand-eye coordination is off the charts, as I discovered when we went golfing. And also the resilience that she’s shown, being able to do all these different events and virtually never get injured, there’s some sort of genetic protection there in addition to her good habits of stretching and being very alive to when she’s taxing herself too much and backing off.

That was so interesting, this concept of “interoception,” and how some people can just read the signals from their own bodies better than others. Continue reading