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Researchers want to know why senior track stars have slowed aging odometer

06/04/2012 02:12 EDT | Updated 08/04/2012 05:12 EDT
Her gold medals measure in the hundreds, and she has penned her name to more track and field world records than Usain Bolt.

Olga Kotelko is one of Canada's most accomplished track and field athletes. And at 93 years old, she's hurling hammers and leaping into long jump pits at an age that most of us simply hope to see.

"Amazing?" says the nonagenarian, who practically scoffs at the suggestion. "There's nothing to it. If I can do it, why not?"

Perhaps a better question is why? Why has Kotelko, owner of 17 world masters records in her 90-95 age category, been able to slow the aging odometer? A group of researchers at Montreal's McGill University are wondering the same thing.

"I don't want to paint it as if she's not aging, she certainly is. But she functions more like a very healthy 70-year-old than a 93-year-old," says Russ Hepple, a physiologist at McGill and expert on aging muscle. "And so the question is: why?"

Hepple and his wife Tanja Taivassalo met Kotelko at the world masters championships in 2009, when they travelled to Finland to watch Taivassalo's dad — a very fit 73-year-old — race the marathon. They invited Kotelko to McGill where they poked and prodded the five-foot silver-haired dynamo, running her through a battery of tests.

Kotelko was the first of about a dozen top masters athletes from around the world Hepple and Taivassalo have lined up to study in their quest to discover how these seniors have managed to put the brakes on the march of time.

One of those going under the microscope is Kotelko's good friend Christa Bortignon.

At the world indoor championships a few weeks ago in Jyvaeskylae, Finland, Kotelko and Bortignon utterly dominated their age divisions — Kotelko won 12 gold medals and broke 12 world records, while the 75-year-old Bortignon captured seven gold medals.

The two West Vancouver, B.C., residents have been friends since Bortignon was inspired by an article on Kotelko three years ago in the local newspaper. Bortignon was looking for a new sport after arthritis in her hands forced her to give up tennis.

She contacted Kotelko, who "being a little pushy" instructed her to be at the track in half an hour. Two weeks later, Bortignon was competing at the Canadian masters championships, in the 100 metres and long jump.

"It was so funny, in the 100 metres I'm looking down the stretch and thinking, how far do we have to run because I expected a ribbon there but there was nothing there," Bortignon says, laughing. "I said to the fellow, 'How far do we have to go?' And he puts his hands apart, and says, 'This is a metre. You do a hundred of them.'"

The two women have been active most of their lives but were latecomers to track and field. Kotelko grew up on a farm near Vonda, Sask., the seventh of 11 children. If they had a ball to play with, "we were lucky."

Kotelko played on a baseball team at a neighbouring school, a 10-kilometre walk from the family farm. After practice, it was home to do the evening chores. They ate what they produced on the farm, including the butter, cheese and milk.

She moved to B.C. to escape a bad marriage when she was pregnant with her second child. She rediscovered slo-pitch when her children were grown and played until she was 75 when a friend suggested she try track and field.

"You throw a ball, and you throw implements. . . javelin, discus. You run from base to base, so why not run 100 metres or 200 metres," says Kotelko, whose favourite event is the hammer throw.

Kotelko holds the 200-metre world record in her age group with a time of 56.46 seconds. Bolt's world record at that distance is 19.19 seconds.

Kotelko is a celebrity in the masters track world. She figures she's done hundreds of interviews.

"I've been bombarded by media of all sorts, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines," she says. "I enjoy it."

Bortignon competed in numerous sports as a child growing up in Germany, but when the German government came recruiting potential Olympians when she was 15, her mother said no, "she didn't think that's what girls should do."

She remained active however. In the 19 years she worked for the federal government in Ottawa, she ran five kilometres every lunch hour. She took up tennis when she moved to the West Coast.

In less than three years in track and field, she's collected Canadian records in 28 different events in two age groups, indoor and outdoor, and her times keep improving. At five feet and 100 pounds, she has the body of a schoolgirl. She's even been drug tested — she giggles when she talks about her shock at being approached by a doping official.

Bortignon wouldn't call her lifestyle extreme.

"I've never smoked, I've worked all my life since I was 15, I'm still working (as an accountant). And I'm not into junk food. I never drink pop. Never. I don't have an unusual diet," says Bortignon, who lists her weaknesses as ice cream and chocolate.

Kotelko and Bortignon compete for the Greyhounds Track Club, a group of 45 masters enthusiasts that includes nine members who are on the shady side of 75. Their coach is Harold Morioka, who raced to over 100 Canadian masters records before five knee surgeries and two open heart surgeries finally forced him to the sideline.

"It's not just one thing that makes you healthy, it's everything," says Morioka. "You you have to have your rest, you have to eat healthy, you have to have a positive attitude.

"You have to have a good clear mind, you can't have negative thoughts. You have to be positive, enjoy what you're doing, enjoy your life, be active, eat well."

The 69-year-old Morioka, who was born in a Japanese internment camp in the Kootenays where his parents were interned for seven years, says he loves the camaraderie that comes from coaching.

The track club includes 82-year-old Ruth Carrier, a multiple world championship medallist and Miss Toronto in 1951, and 83-year-old Louise Sorensen, a Holocaust survivor who speaks at schools about her wartime experiences.

There's 82-year-old Norm Lesage, who won three gold medals at the 2010 world masters indoor championships. He didn't win his first race until he was 77, eight years after he first stepped on the track.

"I beat four guys that I had been training with for eight years," Lesage says. "One day, I beat 'em all, for no reason at all. Oh shoot, I couldn't believe it. I thought maybe they got some bad food. Or they were drinking all night."

There's Andy Aadmi, who won the 300-metre hurdles at last summer's world championships and was named B.C. Athletics' top masters male in 2011.

"I don't go by numbers but by biological age," says Aadmi, who's 77. "By biological age, I think I'm not more than 50. Two things are most important: exercise and diet. Don't treat your body as a garbage dump. Worship it. That's what I do."

Hepple believes, however, that diet and exercise don't paint the full longevity picture.

"Everybody wants to believe, including me, that exercise is this magic panacea, and it's most definitely the most effective thing we have out there in terms of preserving health," Hepple says. "But that alone cannot explain what these people are able to do."

He and Taivassalo are putting the super-seniors through a battery of tests, from aerobic capacity to strength, to pulmonary function.

Kotelko was impressive on many different fronts, but "we don't know why," Hepple says.

"In terms of mechanism, understanding why she's able to do these things, no, we don't have any idea at this stage what is that magic bullet, so to speak."

He suspects genetics may be the answer.

"The one thing that really strikes me about these people is that not only are they impressive in terms of their physical capacities, but cognitively they're much better than you would expect from somebody at their age," Hepple says.

His research has shown that the vast majority of muscles decline after the age of 80 is due to the loss of motor neurons that plug into the muscle fibres.

"If that's true, and certainly that's what we think at this stage, what it might suggest is these masters athletes have some sort of superior neural protection," says the aging specialist.

Kotelko and Bortignon aren't so concerned about why, but will continue to ask why not? They list the places they've been and the people they've met as their favourite aspects of the sport. There's also the pure exhilaration of movement.

"I really love to run," Bortignon says.

Neither plan to slow down any time soon. Bortignon says her mission is to inspire other seniors as Kotelko as inspired her.

Says Kotelko: "I will keep doing my track and field until I drop."

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