Olga Kotelko is the star of WHAT MAKES OLGA RUN? The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives, published today, and the holder of 26 track and field world records in her age group. Which, by the way, happens to be the 90- to 94-year-old bracket. We caught up with the superstar for her thoughts on sleep, nutrition and how to outrun the competition.
You started competing in track and field in your 70s! What made you start?
I retired from teaching after 34 years, and at that time I was 64 years old. I began playing a little recreational slow-pitch softball, and my mentor encouraged me to try competing in masters track and field at the Masters BC [British Columbia] Games. I started with the 100 meters and 200 meters, shotput, discus and javelin, and I got hooked. From there, the only way to go was up!
How did the transition from softball to those new activities feel?
There wasn't much transition because recreational softball was just with friends, but with track and field it was just athletes who were eager to go for the gold and do their best. It's a competition, and I love competition. I soon learned that for an athlete in a lifetime to get one world record -- since there were also Canadian records, British Columbia records -- to get one world record was an achievement. I thought, well, maybe it's for me. So I went for it.
How many world records do you have now?
In my 90 to 94 age group, I have 26 world records.
Have you always loved to compete?
I have always enjoyed competing. I enjoy the camaraderie, I enjoy the intensity of the competition itself. I thought maybe this was the time to get brave enough and broaden my horizons.
Of all the records you've set and events you've competed in, is there a fitness accomplishment you're most proud of?
When I was still very naive, at the beginning of my new career, I was competing in Tucson, Arizona. We were doing the javelin throw, and there were 11 women in my age group. Each athlete had six throws. On my fifth throw, I had already thrown 50 feet, and the official felt that was quite a good mark. He said, "Ladies, you have 50 feet to beat!" Then, on my sixth throw, I threw 65 feet and 10 inches. Everybody swarmed me, asking, "Do you have a trainer? What do you eat? How do you sleep?" I didn't know what was going on, but I learned fast.
So how do you eat and sleep? Have nutrition and sleep been important during your career?
You need sleep to relax your body. It's a fundamental human need. The body needs rest to function efficiently.
How do you find time for enough sleep with all your competitions?
Shortly after dinner at competitions I make sure I do my stretching exercises, and soon -- I find myself asleep!
Good food is the first line of defense for achieving and maintaining a healthy body. I like all kinds of food. I have been blessed with a strong constitution. I enjoy a good steak or roast and a baked potato, I enjoy brightly-colored vegetables. I have a sweet tooth, but I try to be sensible about that. I choose food that is fresh and natural, unprocessed and unrefined. I believe in the saying "You are what you eat."
What do you think has been the key to staying active so long?
I think having a positive attitude, being optimistic. I think that's very necessary.
I'm also hooked on sudoku. I think mind games -- like puzzles and card games -- challenge your reasoning and logic. Of course, you need to have a fitness program where you'll balance cardio, balance, flexibility, muscle training. That will improve your fitness no matter what age and ability. Anyone who stops learning is old. Knowledge is power. Age is but a number. It's not how old we are, it's how we get old. I'm still learning every day.
And you're never too old to chase your dream! Don't be afraid to keep up that determination and drive.
What's on the horizon in terms of upcoming competitions?
I am soon entering a new age group: 95 to 99 year olds, if there are any! I understand there is one lady in Italy who is still active. And of course the lady in Australia, [Ruth Frith], she is still competing.
In March, there's the World Masters Athletics Indoor Championship in Budapest, and I'm already planning my travel, and more in June and July.
So, no sign of slowing down then?
No way. No way.
As told to Sarah Klein. This interview has been edited and condensed.