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Category: Sports

Finishing Strong—Older Women Athletes Show the Way

| August 18, 2011

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Diana Nyad, entering the water in Cuba; photo: Christi Barli

Last week Diana Nyad attempted to swim from Cuba to the United States, a feat she first undertook 33 years ago while in her 20s. Elayne Clift celebrates her prowess and that of her sportswomen peers.

When 61-year old endurance swimmer Diana Nyad entered the water early on the morning of August 7 in Havana, Cuba, she was fully prepared for the 103-mile swim she would undertake to reach Florida.  She had trained vigorously for two years in order to set a record for open-water swimming without a shark cage, training that included 12-hour daily swims. “I’m standing here at the prime of my life,” she told CNN as she was about to start.  “When one reaches this age, you still have a body that’s strong but now you have a better mind.”

Nyad, for ten years the greatest long-distance swimmer in the world, was nearly halfway into her 60-hour swim when shoulder pain and asthma as well as ocean swells caused her to abandon her goal.  “It was a bitter pill to swallow,” she said, but the lesson is “live your life with passion, show your will, you feel proud of yourself when you go to bed at night.”

It’s a message that resonates with many other older women athletes.  German kayaker Birgit Fischer is one of them.  Winner of eight gold medals over six different Olympic games, she was the youngest Olympic canoeing champion when she won her first gold medal at the age of 18 (1980), and the oldest ever when she won gold at age 42 (2004).

Then there is “the iron nun,” Sister Madonna Buder, a triathlete in her 80s.  At a retreat in 1978 a priest said running would be a good way to harmonize body and soul, so Sister Madonna began jogging.  Several weeks later, at the age of 47, she finished fourth among 300 women who competed on a 7.4 mile run in Spokane, WA.  Four years later, she ran the Boston Marathon.  Then she learned of a triathlon that included running, biking, and swimming.  It changed her life; she has since competed, with record-breaking wins, in more than three dozen triathlons in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Undertaking the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon more than 20 times, Sister Madonna swam 2.4 miles of rough ocean, biked 112 miles, and concluded with a 26.2-mile marathon. In 2005 she opened the competition's first-ever division for women ages 75 to 79.  Featured on SecondAct.com, she says the extraordinary camaraderie among the athletes who come to Hawaii brings her back year after year.

Hawaii is clearly a haven for older women athletes.  Paddlers, swimmers, runners, surfers and triathletes flock to its shores, While researching a book on aging with strength, champion triathlete Lorenn Walker gathered a group of like-minded women in her home state for a Honolulu Advertiser interview.

One of them, Ruth Heidrich, 67 at the time of the interview, was named one of the “Top Ten Fittest Women in North America” in 1999. A six-time Ironman Triathlon finisher and holder of more than 900 gold medals from every distance from 100 meter dashes to triathlon events, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 47.  “I thought it was the beginning of the end,” she told the Advertiser reporter, “but little did I know it was just the beginning.”

Champion swimmer Diane Stowell, then also 67, wasn’t allowed as a woman to compete in collegiate swimming but she has since won national and world titles for her age group.  She has also surfed, jogged, and paddled for the Outrigger Canoe Club in Honolulu, despite having two torn rotator cuffs.

Audrey Sutherland, a solo kayaker, has paddled more than 8,000 miles along the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia, where she encountered killer whales and grizzly bears. At age 81, she was planning a solo trip to the Cook Islands.

Is there a reason older women athletes do so well? Sports experts say that events requiring pacing, strategy and mental fortitude are often best achieved by older women.  They say there is more to it than physiology and good genes.  Older athletes, particularly women, are more disciplined, more consistent with their training, and smarter competitively because the know how to pace themselves. As one sport psychologist put it, “they know how to use what they have.”

Women may also have the edge over men because they produce more estrogen, which helps protect muscle cells membranes from wear and tear.  And the fact that women generally weigh less than men may give them an additional advantage because there is less stress on the body with a light load to carry.

In an interview with The Huffington Post shortly before her attempted swim, Diana Nyad reflected on the task she had set for herself.  “I think growing old is a beautiful thing. … But when my mom died at 82 … while I was turning 60, I just thought, wow, you know life seems to go by exponentially faster as we get older. …  I want to feel alive … I wanted to do something that just took the most out of me.”  Then she added, “I don’t care what age you are. … Just immerse yourself in your life, … just do it intensely … so that when you go to sleep you’re exhausted every night and you say, whoa, I just couldn’t have done any more with that day.”

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