Maybe it’s a matter of peaking late. Maybe it’s a matter of unusual physical gifts. But maybe aging athletes are teaching the rest of us that our previous ideas about remaining competitive as we grow older are old news.
Bernard Hopkins notched an improbable, record-breaking victory in May over Jean Pascal to become boxing’s world champion in the light heavyweight division at age 46, making him the oldest boxer to ever win a world title. He is scheduled to fight again on Saturday, October 15 against former champion Chad Dawson at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
If Hopkins wins, he is all but assured to be named the 2011 fighter of the year by Ring Magazine, the equivalent of his sport’s Most Valuable Player Award. Hopkins will break his own 10-year-old record as the oldest fighter to ever win the award at age 36 back in 2001.
Dara Torres became the oldest female swimmer in Olympic Games history in 2008. The American won three silver medals at age 41. Now she’s training to make the U.S. team competing at the 2012 Games/ Torres will be 45 when the London Olympics begin on July 27, 2012. If she makes the team, she would become the oldest Olympic swimmer ever.
Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad gave up her attempt to break the open-water swimming record at age 62 last month, forced to abandon the 103-mile swim from Cuba to Florida after 89 miles due to repeated stings from lethal Portuguese Man-O-War jellyfish.
She says she knew she would have made it if not for the stings. She won’t try again, but she doesn’t consider the effort including two years of training a failure, calling it a “grand, elevating, life-confirming experience.”
Ed Whitlock, a runner from Canada, became the oldest person to run a marathon in under three hours in 2003, at the age of 73.
The average age of an American Olympic athlete track and field athlete has gone up almost four years, from 23.4 in 1980 to 26.8 last year.
What is making these phenomenal, world-class performances possible for older athletes? Researchers think it’s a whole host of factors including genetics, the wisdom of experience, state-of-the-art training techniques, and what we’ve learned about nutrition and fitness from science.
Just how far athletes can push the limits of physiology and reality, no one is sure. But what we do know is that aging is not automatic or inevitable. Consistency seems to be a factor in keeping aerobic athletes like swimmers, distance runners, and boxers competition well into what we think of as middle age, or certainly way past world-class prime.
Hopkins says he doesn’t plan to retire after his bout with Dawson, already lining up fights for him after he turns age 47.
For her part, Torres says she doesn’t feel like she has much to prove any more. “I’m just doing it because I love it… I think people are more into the fact that I’ve done it for so long, over so many years — it will be a 28-year span — rather than winning 12 medals. For me being able to do that means more to me,” she says.
Nyad says she feels stronger and more resilient than she did when setting records in her 20s. She admitted it was not easy for her to let go of what she called “The Xtreme Dream.” But she said people inspired by her efforts should continue to work hard, test their wills and dream big.
“There’s so much boldness in living life this way, and we did it all, and no one can take it away from us,” she said.
Until next time, enjoy the ride (or run or swim or weight workout) in good health!