Q&A with 94-Year-Old Track Star, Olga Kotelko

At age 77, former Vancouver school teacher Olga Kotelko took up track and field, and at 94 years old, she's still a competing world champion. Naturally, this caught the attention of anybody with eyes and a brain, which is why writer Bruce Grierson (TIME, New York Times Magazine) joined forces with Olga for What Makes Olga Run?a book dedicated to finding out how she keeps doing what she does.

Well-written and engaging, What Makes Olga Run? not only reminds us that we're as young as we feel, but that life doesn't necessarily end when we're told it's supposed to. We needn't dread the last few decades and assume we've done and seen it all — Olga is proof that not only can you keep expanding your horizons well into your 90s, you can break a few world records while you're at it. 

I was lucky enough to speak with Olga and Bruce when they were in Toronto, and we talked about everything from the state of mind that's taken Olga this far, and the past that brought her here. (And for the love of all that is good, pick up the book so we can talk about this even more.)

29 Secrets: Congratulations on everything! I can't put the book down. And Olga, you are really inspiring.

Olga Kotelko: "Inspiring" or "expiring"?

29 Secrets: Inspiring! [Laughs] Alright, so what I found to be something that's resonated most with me is that in addition to your physical capabilities, you've endured a lot mentally and emotionally. I feel like this generation hasn't been faced with the challenges yours was. So first, what advice would you give people my age, who don't really understand "real" struggle? 

OK: I'm from the old school, and I'm almost 100 years old. So we have to think back to the kind of life I had when I was your age. I grew up on a farm, and I'm number seven in the pack, and we'd walk to school two miles, and had to milk 15 cows by hand before we started school. And of course, you know, society was much different at that time. It's hard for the young people to really appreciate that kind of society that I lived in compared to what they're experiencing. But that all brought me to where I am now, and I treasure it, and I've been doing it to my fullest, and I'd love to impress young people because they're the coming generation and the leaders. And in that way, they can give back to the community.

What else?

29 Secrets: Well, what makes you embrace your age? Because I also think my generation is afraid to get old. But age is a privilege.

OK: Age is but a number as far as I'm concerned. And it's not about how old you are, it's how you get old. To get old, you experience all kinds of experiences — the good ones, and the bad ones, and both of them make you grow, and get better, of course. 

29 Secrets: Now, Bruce. I'm assuming you learned a lot from your time with Olga during the writing of this book. What were some of the things you took away from your experiences with Olga? Do you think you're a different person than from when you began?

Bruce Grierson: I'm a different person than from breakfast. I think everything we do changes us, and certainly meeting Olga has changed me in lots of good ways. We were just talking about this: Olga's changed me in a lot of little ways, and in a lot of concrete ways, and in a few bigger ways. And the little ways are just habits. Little specific things that I've observed that she does that seem to work. And I found with the book that I'd look at what Olga does, then ask whether there's any research that bears out what she does intuitively that also works for us and our health. And it turns out a lot of the stuff she does is good for us [according to the research] — like drinking water, getting enough sleep, and not being sedentary.

One of my big problems was that I felt if I got a little workout in the morning, that was my get out of jail free card for the day, and any other bad habits would be left in the shade because of that good thing I did. And it's just not true. And in the big picture, it's about re-framing what aging is all about. I was getting to be miserable company as I hit my mid-40s, and then I met Olga and realized I had no right to talk that way. Because she was still growing and getting better and I realized there's no excuse for raising the white flag on ourselves, ever. So that to me was a big shift — a required shift.

29 Secrets: Olga, did you ever have to go up against naysayers when you tried track and field? Did anybody discourage or criticize you? 

OK: I just have no time for any sort of criticism or advice of that nature. So I just went for it. I thought, "My gosh! This is what I want to do!" and I'm glad that I did it. I chose to be a young at heart athlete other than an old woman, and I'm glad that I did that because I am at the stage that I am, and I must thank God that He keeps me in good health and gives me the opportunities to use my talent. And it's nice to win. I like that. I like competition, and it's affirming and gratifying to be recognized for my work. I enjoy what I'm doing. I really and truly do. I travel all over the world, and I make new friends of all ages, and you have to laugh at yourself, and you will see how that changes your whole attitude in your life. And be optimistic! Keep a postivie attitude, and always wear a smile.

And give back to the community because you have worked hard for it, and it has sustained you. And encourage the positive traits in leadership in the younger generation because they are our future.

BG: Olga and I were talking last night, and she said to me, "This is the best time of my life." And that kind of blows me away that somebody in their mid-90s can be having the best time of their life. And it makes my own attitude of "I'm in my mid-40s I can't do anything anymore" look absolutely ridiculous. It's embarassing when we think of what could be — these older years — could be so fantastic if we could just keep ourselves in some sort of shape with the right attitude and even approximate what Olga has. I'm looking forward to this third act, now, instead of dreading it.

29 Secrets: Exactly! Yeah, I'm 28–

OK: Oh my goodness. You're a baby.

29 Secrets: Right?! And we freak out over everything — [my age group is] always afraid of wasting time, and we think we're so old, and we think we need to have everything figured out, but even your advice on taking a few breaths to slow your head down helps — you're proof that you can live a full life into your 90s and 100s.

OK: [The breathing] happens very often. When I'm on the highway and on the freeway,  I get back into my own lane, and just relax. Deep breathing is one of my utmost exercises. You breathe in to the count of three, hold, and breathe out, counting fix, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. 

29 Secrets: And that's important — everything is so instant now. We're rushing ourselves when we can be using all of these minutes and looking around and learning and appreciating and observing.

BG: Olga's breathing technique is a tangible thing, but also a metaphor. It's about taking a moment instead of squeezing some new bit of data into every second. If you take 30 seconds and get yourself aligned again, ultimatley, you're ahead. But we don't even want to take that time. We don't think we have it. But we do.

29 Secrets: Well one of the things I wanted to touch on was Olga, you left an abusive situation in an era when women didn't do that. You picked up, and you left, and you built a house from scratch, and you built a life for yourself.

OK: You really want to know?

29 Secrets: I would love to know.

OK: My married life was not the best. And our first daughter was already born, and I became pregnant again. And I was married ten years at the time, and life was not getting better, but worse. So I decided to leave my husband when I was five months pregnant, and here I am. I established the single parenthood.

BG: Yes, and she's saying there was no template — you just had to do it, and you did it.

29 Secrets: Was it that mentality that led to where you're at now? You're not abiding by any social norms now either, and you're very free.

OK: I learned that there was no time to waste. There's always something to do. And what can I say? There were no sports of any kind structured and organized when I was younger, because the idea was that it could hurt the reproductive organs if women did them. So bowling was the first exercise when I was still in high school, then I didn't do any sports of any kind until softball in grade 12 — recreationally. And then not again until I was 70 when I started playing softball in a league, and then went into track and field because I wanted to broaden my horizons and see what else I could do, bigger and better.

BG: It's funny to talk about this stuff that doesn't sound corny and shave it all down into cliches, but there's so much truth in them. But the wisdom in them is ageless, and they confirm what we've been told about the importance of attitude and perseverence, and it's tricky to talk about, but essential.

29 Secrets: Yes. And I feel like "inspired" is a word that gets tossed around a lot, but here it really applies. And Olga, like I said, I'm so inspired by you. You're changing a lot of lives.

BG: When the Parade piece ran, somebody wrote in and said, "This kind of story really irritates me because it's like telling your kid you can be another LeBron James." Like, [someone may] think they can be another Olga, and they aren't, and they get discouraged. And to me, the point isn't that we should be exactly like Olga, but that we should be a little bit more like Olga; improve our lives like that as opposed to trying to be exactly like her. Get moving and stay moving, just be active. The cynicism flags go up pretty fast with this kind of topic, and you have to not worry about talking about them that way.

29 Secrets: Well, my last question is: Olga, if you could give somebody my age a motto to live by, what would it be?

OK: Start the day, and like I said, get rid of the baggage and the garbage, and don't stop. And don't be afraid — go for it. 

BG: No fear!

29 Secret: None!

Tags: 94 years old, Bruce Grierson, interview, Olga Kotelko, What Makes Olga Run?

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