Olympians - Faster, Higher, Stronger & Older

Simon Whitfield, Canada's most decorated triathlete, is talking about his latest training ride. He'd blasted out of his Victoria home, down the Galloping Goose trail, past Sooke River and its famed swimmer's potholes, then down some primitive fire roads where, well, he got lost.

Simon Whitfield, Canada's most decorated triathlete, is talking about his latest training ride. He'd blasted out of his Victoria home, down the Galloping Goose trail, past Sooke River and its famed swimmer's potholes, then down some primitive fire roads where, well, he got lost. All the while he was listening to an audio book--Michael Crichton's Micro--a mindless distraction, and that's the problem. "This is a good book," he told himself, "but I'd better figure out how to get home."

The pull for home--to his wife, Jennie, and daughters Pippa, 5, and Evelyn, 2--is just one of many differences in Whitfield's training regimen these days. As a young, hyper-competitive athlete, he needed the motivation of training with others, someone to chase down and get the better of. It got him Olympic gold in Sydney in 2000 and silver in Beijing in 2008, but the road to London 2012 is a more solitary pursuit. At 37, he's training harder than ever, but he's largely turned that competitiveness inward. "I lost a lot of energy on the idea of being older," he says. "Now, in the last couple of years I've started to realize that I've got to focus on the advantages of being older, not the disadvantages."

And there are advantages. For certain sports, and certain athletes, age becomes them. The team the Canadian Olympic Committee sends to London next month will be uncommonly blessed with experience--athletes who have defied the years and beat back younger competitors to meet the demanding qualifying standards that earned them another shot at the podium. Somewhere along the way, age became just a number. Marriage, mortgage and even motherhood stopped being an impediment. Olympic sport graduated from pastime to profession. Certainly, youth and enthusiasm are well represented--the average age of the Canadian team will be south of 30 when it's finalized--but never underestimate the value of age and experience.

It was Whitfield and doubles tennis ace Daniel Nestor who won two of just three Olympic gold medals that Canadians brought home from the Sydney Summer Games in 2000. That was 12 years ago, a lifetime for most elite athletes, and yet Nestor, at 39, and Whitfield--in a sport that packs in a 1.5-km swim, a 40-km bike race and a 10-km run--are back on Canada's Olympic team and gunning for glory this August at the London Summer Games. Headed to London, too, and to their fourth Olympic Games, are diver Émilie Heymans, 30, and trampolinist Karen Cockburn, 31. Both won their first Olympic medals in Sydney, and medalled again in Athens and Beijing--two survivors in sports that favour the young. Among many more on the veterans list are a pack of race-hardened rowers and the indomitable cyclist-turned-speedskater-turned cyclist Clara Hughes, who at 23 won her first two of six Summer and Winter Olympic medals way back at the 1996 Atlanta Games. At 39, she admits she's the age of some of the parents of her fellow Olympians.

Canada's Olympic athletes, like Olympians in general, are staying in the game longer. The average age of U.S. Summer Olympians, for example, has climbed to 27, a three-year increase from 1980. The average is pulled up by exceptions like U.S. swimmer Dara Torres, who won three medals in the Beijing Games at age 41 and is hoping to qualify for London at 45. She's exceptional, but not unique. The U.S. sent 64 athletes age 40 or older to the last three Summer Games. They won 23 medals, a conversion rate that puts youngsters to shame. In Beijing, Canadian show jumper Eric Lamaze won individual gold at age 40. And he was the youngster among four Canadian riders who won silver in the team jumping event. That group, average age 50, was anchored by Ian Millar, 61.

Older athletes are performing better for many reasons, not the least of which is a change in attitude. Prof. Volker Nolte, 59, head rowing coach at the University of Western Ontario in London, says as a young rower in Germany he narrowly missed a spot on the national team. He was considered too old--at 26.

"Most of the people had a one-time Olympic shelf life, then they stopped"--a terrible waste of potential, he says. Walking away after all those hours of training--10,000 to really excel, most sports scientists say--is like leaving your winnings on the blackjack table. Strength training develops more fast-twitch muscle fibers. With endurance training, the body creates more capillaries and generates more red blood cells and mitochondria, which power a body's activities and cell rejuvenation. "There is no real reason, physically, why people cannot produce high performances in all kinds of sports at higher ages," Nolte says. "There comes an age where people can't do it anymore, and this is around 70."

Of course, hard training takes a toll over time. Credit advances in sports medicine and therapy, age-sensitive training and nutritional advice for mitigating wear and tear and speeding injury recovery. Sports funding groups like Own the Podium, recognizing the value of retaining that hard-won experience, have invested heavily in athlete support, top-level coaching and equipment. "Talent retention" is the new mantra, says Victoria-based men's rowing coach Terry Paul. His crew includes the formidable pair of Beijing silver medallists Scott Frandsen, 32, and David Calder, 34, who are training for their third and fourth Olympics, respectively. They're the first ones out the door and into their boat every morning, says Paul. "The level of professionalism and experience they bring helps us fast-track the younger guys."

Frandsen and Calder are lucky to have private sponsorship money and, typical of many older athletes, they returned to the sport after several years in the workforce. Both have jobs to return to. While they are more fortunate than many, there's now recognition that the Olympic dream doesn't burn as bright on a starvation diet. The International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s strict requirement that Olympic athletes be unpaid amateurs began to waver in the 1970s. What was once sacrilege is now bottom-line common sense. Today, Canada's top-carded Olympians earn $1,500 a month plus other financial assistance; they're allowed to earn prize money and sign lucrative endorsement deals. They're even paid on a sliding scale for Olympic medals, from $10,000 for bronze to $20,000 for gold.

Nestor, who has more than $10 million in career winnings and is currently part of the world's No. 1 ranked tennis pair, was named to the Olympic team days after he and doubles partner Max Mirnyi of Belarus won the French Open. His Canadian partner on the Olympic courts at Wimbledon will be 21-year-old rising star Vasek Pospisil, 18 years his junior. This is Nestor's fifth Olympics, but who knows if it will be his last?

Parenthood is another challenge facing older athletes. While Calder and Whitfield lament that toil and travel eat into quality time with their young families, for women Olympians, biological clocks were often the stopwatch that ended their careers. Not so for 29-year-old hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, who expects to race in London, her third Olympics, just 11 months after giving birth to daughter Nataliya. She's already returned to the speed she clocked to win a bronze medal in Beijing.

Also back to form is 30-year-old heptathlete Jessica Zelinka. After a fifth-place finish in Beijing, she took more than a year away from training for the birth of her daughter Anika. "I'm more relaxed because, despite working incredibly hard to be successful, motherhood has taught me the importance of not being too hard on myself and managing my expectations," Zelinka wrote in a blog that now tracks motherhood as well as sport. The heptathlon combines seven track and field sports, making Zelinka one of Canada's best all-around athletes. On a recent June day she was sprinting on the indoor track at the University of Calgary, muscles rippling in a jaw-dropping display of grace and power. "Beautiful!" whispered a physiotherapist at trackside. "In my next life, I want to be her."

Every athlete of a certain age has a story, but they also share a common denominator: a fire in the belly they won't let die, a refusal to surrender this thing they do as well or better than anyone in the world. But even the best realize someday this gift will be taken by age or injury or the grind of daily life.

And so 45-year-old whitewater kayaker David Ford battled to win Canada an Olympic spot in his sport. And this April, paddling with a muscle tear in his left elbow, he lost that spot to 20-year-old Michael Tayler, and with it his hopes for a sixth consecutive Olympics.

And so this spring, 37-year-old rower Tracy Cameron beat 20-year-old Patricia Obee in a winner-take-all race for a seat in the London-bound lightweight pairs boat. And this June, seven weeks before the Olympics, she abruptly retired. For reasons left unsaid, the friendship and chemistry with rowing partner Lindsay Jennerich were irretrievably broken, "the joy in the boat for me was dead," the "Olympic values," in her view, were undermined. "No Olympic medal is worth being unhappy, or worth abandoning those Olympic values for." With experience, too, comes knowing when to walk away.

For the rest, that time will come. But until that time, 33-year-old rower Darcy Marquardt, one of the natural leaders in the women's powerhouse eight, will take all she's learned in her 10,000 hours and two fourth-place finishes in Athens and Beijing and aim for the top of the podium. And behind her in the stern will be coxswain Lesley Thompson-Willie, 53, in her seventh Olympics. She has a bronze, two silvers, a gold and a determination to make amends for Beijing. What keeps her coming back are nine women driven by a common goal. "I think it's rare in life," she says, "to be able to work in an environment of excellence."

You don't get to that elite level without a battering along the way. Those who endure listen to their bodies. "I have to rest way more than when I was younger," says Heymans, who had to beat out 19-year-old diving phenom Pamela Ware to qualify for the 3-metre springboard. "My body takes longer to recover. It's something I have to make myself do--rest enough that I have enough energy," Heymans says. And, she adds, "I have a lot more massages than I used to."

Time off after a bronze-medal performance in Beijing restored the body and stoked the competitive fires for 34-year-old wrestler Tonya Verbeek. Adding Pilates and hot yoga have kept her injury-free in a punishing sport as she as she readies for her third Olympics and a third medal. "I'm still learning, still wanting to get better," she told an interviewer. "If the body co-operates, why not?"

For Whitfield, the years have brought many gifts, especially a family that has given him balance and perspective. As he speaks, little Evelyn prances about in her gymnastics outfit. In the 22 years since his first triathlon, the movements of swimming, cycling and running have become so ingrained that his training is incredibly efficient, he says. Studies of elite athletes show the body also develops internal efficiencies, producing ways, for instance, to maintain the same pace with lower oxygen demand. "I don't have a physiology background," he says, "but I know that intuitively."

But the thing that gets him out of bed every morning to train and lets him push through the pain is an insight that came with time. To hear him tell it, it was kind of like falling in love. He looked at his training, this chore he's awakened to for most of the past two decades, and there came a dawning realization that it is a precious thing to perform at this level. "Now I get out the door because I just love it," he says. "I look forward to every session because I see it as a wonderful privilege."

One hears variations of that love story at the rowing course and the swimming pool, at tracks and soccer pitches and gymnasiums. Whitfield laughs and says he'd have saved a lot of sleepless nights by learning this earlier. But some lessons come only with time.

Maclean's July 9, 2012