Age is no barrier: meet the world’s oldest top athletes

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Richard Godwin catches up with five pensioners, aged up to 108, who thrive on extreme exercise

Edwina Brocklesby: triathlete, 76, Kingston-upon-Thames

I didn’t do any exercise at all until I was 50. I remember trying out for the long-jump team at university for a laugh and I couldn’t move for two weeks afterwards. So that was the end of my athletics career. And then I had three children and I was busy with my job. I was a social worker and ran two adoption agencies.

One day, I went to see an old friend from Nottingham University who was running a marathon. I thought that would be fun to do, at least a half marathon, anyway. I came back and told my husband and he laughed and said I wouldn’t even be able to run as far as Northampton, which was about three miles from where we lived at the time. It’s good to have a challenge like that! Sure enough, it did inspire me to run my first half marathon.

Then my husband died when I was 52. By then I had a small group of running friends and they were brilliantly supportive. I trained as a counsellor myself, but I found running better than counselling for dealing with grief. For one, you always feel better after you’ve been for a run as the endorphins kick in. But I think what is more important is the social element. You’re with people who support you and value you. You can talk if you want to, or you can be silent if you want to.

The running club was only small, but it did have one place in the London Marathon – and that’s when it became more serious for me. I ran my first marathon in 1996, when I was 53. I moved to London and became a member of the Serpentine Running Club and, with them, I completed my first London Triathlon when I was 58. I don’t have an anterior cruciate ligament in either knee – my daughter told me that I’d need surgery if I kept pounding the streets like I used to – and that’s how I got into cycling and swimming as they’re a little easier on the joints. When I started swimming, at 56, I couldn’t do crawl at all and swam breaststroke with my head above water like most women of my age. But swimming is a wonderful feeling. It might have something to do with our spending the first nine months of our gestation suspended in water.

There’s so much evidence that if you keep physically active, you don’t experience some of the difficulties associated with ageing. There are lower rates of type 2 diabetes among the active, but falling over is the biggest thing. If you can keep your bone and muscle strength up, you’re less likely to fall – and you might also be able to prevent yourself from hitting the ground if you do fall. Falls are one of the things that costs the NHS the most money.

I’m getting slower as I get older, of course I am. I do manage to run 5k, but I walk a bit more. I feel lucky that I can still jog along the Thames.

Edwina Brocklesby is the director of Silverfit, a charity that promotes physical activity among ageing people. She is also the UK’s oldest Ironman triathlete. She was recently awarded the British Empire Medal

Eddy Diget: personal trainer, 74, Milton Keynes

Eddy
‘Mature people are much more aware of the goodness that can come out of training’: Eddy Diget. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

I’ve always trained: cross-country running; ice skating; roller skating; fencing; cycling… I represented England in the Commonwealth Games in Perth 1962 in diving and swimming. I’ve been doing weight training for about 45 years now and I was British bodybuilding champion twice, once at 58 and once at 68. I’ve been a stuntman. I was a medical officer in the Royal Navy. And I have been recognised as a Shaolin Master for my commitment to Chinese martial arts. Some Shaolin monks turned up at my studio in Oxford Brookes one day in their saffron robes and presented me with a piece of parchment. I broke down and wept. It was such an honour.

In a way, I have my father to thank. He was an extremely aggressive man. A big man, too. He used to knock me and my mother about quite a bit. The only way I could escape from him was to be outside and that’s how I discovered sport.

One day, when I was 16, I was fishing at Tooting Bec ponds when my mum came round with a black eye. She said: “Joe’s in a real bad mood. He’s coming to find you.” All of a sudden, my father came down the hill and started punching me. I think I was coming up to a brown sash in kung fu at the time – and I just tore into him. It was over in seconds, 16 years of pent-up fear and hate. I blinded him in one eye, which I wasn’t happy about. But after that we were the best of mates. And he was a different man. A respectful man. He never touched my mother again.

People have become more educated about being fit over the years, especially the over-50s and over-60s. Mature people are much more aware of the goodness that can come out of training.

But younger people in particular are looking for a quick fix. The personal trainers are all 10mg of this, 10mg of that. It’s become too complicated. You see the same people come into the gym every day, doing the same exercises. It’s so they don’t have to think about it. But the more you change it, the more results you’ll get.

I am a rehab consultant, so I train people who have had cancer, wheelchair users, people with chronic regional pain syndrome, amputees. But I also train Ironmen, ultra-marathon runners – and an Olympic fencer. It really is an extreme diversity of clients and I feel incredibly privileged and humbled to do it. Personal training is not really about the training, it’s much more to do with the person.

I’d never been ill in 74 years, never even been inside a hospital. But last year, thanks to the NHS bowel screening programme, I learned I had bowel cancer. I went in on the 19 November at 11am and came out a 8.30pm with a whole section removed. I’m pleased to say I’ve never had any pain at all because of my fitness. The consultant commented on it before my surgery. He said: “I don’t see many people with your stamina or your outlook.” But I’m a fatalist. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m just pleased I caught it. And now I feel fabulous. I feel on top of the world.

Eddy Diget is a stuntman, model and personal trainer at the DW Fitness First gym in Milton Keynes

Gwyn Haslock: surfer, 73, Truro

Gwyn
‘I entered my first competition in 1965 as the only woman, and then I was the first proper British ladies’ champion in 1969’: Gwyn Haslock in Cornwall. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

My family always used to go to the sea when I was growing up. We all started surfing in the 1950s on the north coast of Cornwall with wooden belly boards, which are like planks of wood. Then the lifeguards started to import Malibu longboards, which were 10ft long, and before long they started making them there in Newquay. I bought a secondhand one and started properly surfing in 1965.

I wasn’t what you’d call a typical surfer like in the Beach Boys songs. A lot of the good surfers worked in the surfing trade, in surf shops and so on, but I worked for the council as a shorthand typist. It was very 9 to 5, but I surfed at weekends.

I just liked the sea. And when I saw people standing up as if they were walking across the water, I thought, I’d like to have a go at that. It took me about a month before I could stand up and a year before I got any style. I entered my first competition in 1965 as the only woman, and was the first proper British ladies’ champion in 1969. But like any sport, you’re always learning.

I always say to people, the most important thing with surfing is paddling. You’ve got to paddle out, so you have to duck dive under the waves or push yourself over them. Then you’re “out the back”, as we call it. You’ll see a lovely wave coming, paddle for it and up you get. You need to be fit to build up the momentum and then it’s like floating in air, but across the wave. Sometimes it’s just seconds, sometimes the wave peels and it can go on and on. Sometimes at Fistral, you get nice long rides right along the beach. But the conditions are never the same and it always tests you.

I’ve never seen any sharks in Cornwall. I have surfed near dolphins and you do see seals sometimes. I sprained my wrist once, but I’ve never had any bad accident. I know my limits and now I wear my helmet. I want to enjoy it.

I never married. I lived with my mother until she died seven years ago, and I’ve been retired for eight years now. When I was working, I couldn’t go surfing in the week so much, but now I can go whenever I like, which is good as it gets busy at weekends. Back in the 60s there was a lot more water space – it wasn’t like now when everyone’s in there. I like playing tennis, too. I do a bit of fencing. Gardening. There’s lots of things to do.

I’ve surfed in Wales, Ireland, France and once in Portugal. Australia and New Zealand… they don’t appeal to me at all. I did go to California on holiday once and we drove through Malibu and I wasn’t that impressed with it to be honest. We have plenty of surf down here, why do I need to go anywhere else?

Gwyn Haslock was Britain’s first competitive female surfing champion

Ida Keeling: sprinter, 104, Harlem, New York

Ida
‘I go to the gym, ride my bike, work out, stretch, reach, do push-ups’: Ida Keeling with her daughter. Photograph: Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

I was 67 when I started running. I had lost my two sons to drug-related violence – in 1978 and then in 1981. It was so quick. They were stabbed up or shot up or whatever they did to them. Too quick. No warning. It just broke me. I was very depressed.

My daughter Cheryl came by one day and saw I was down in the dumps. That isn’t usually who I am. She wanted to take me out for a mini run and since I was already so down I said: “All right, go ahead.” And it did good for me. It kept me moving. I could feel myself getting stronger and feeling more free. It helped me immensely. And I’m still running now.

I grew up in Harlem, USA, in San Juan Hill – they call it Hell’s Kitchen now. I was one of eight children. Everybody was poor. There was already a Depression there even before they called it a Depression. But there are happy memories. Children don’t have to pay rent. My dad took us to Central Park on his day off from the factory. We had a good time, looking at all the fishes swimming and doing all the things children do: run, play, jump, roll and all that type of stuff. In the summertime when it was hot, the police department would put a sprinkler on top of the fire hydrants for the children to play in.

We hung swings from the fire escapes at the back of buildings. And on Saturdays the bigger boys from around the corner would turn up with a pail and a couple of wooden spoons to drum on it and we’d do the Charleston, the drag, and everything else. We played hooky from school to go and watch the Lindy Hop dancers at the Apollo. We had some good times coming from bad times. But Harlem changed when drugs came in. Everybody wanted to make this quick money. And it dragged in my sons.

I felt like I was being held in a grip, or like I was in a bag or something. But the more I ran, the faster and stronger I became. As I was running like crazy, I released the hold that death had on me. From then on, I belonged to track and field. I said, shoot, sprinting is faster. I’m not going to do all this long-distance, I’m going to sprint. I wanted to go as fast as I could.

Now I’m 104, I’m not so fast. But I go whatever distance I can and if I start a race, I finish it. I’m always the winner for my age group as I don’t have no competition. I’m usually chasing myself. But I go with what I’ve got left. I go to the gym, I ride my bike, I work out, I stretch, I reach, I do push-ups, I do upper weights, I get on the floor and turn my feet up over my head, and when I don’t get out, I stay right here and work out in my room. I’m as healthy as a 25-year-old, my doctor says. I have no intention of slowing down. Age ain’t got nothing to do with it. When you really want to do something for yourself, go and do it. And if you fail, try, try, try again.

Fauja Singh: marathon runner, 108, Redbridge

Fauja
‘Freedom for me is being independently mobile’: Fauja Singh, who ran a marathon at 89 and stills walks 5m a day. Photograph: Hindustan Times via Getty Images

I was born in a village in Punjab in India in 1911. My memories are of a simple life without the stresses that people all over the world seem to have nowadays. I came from a farming family, and we learned to live within our means after working hard and honestly. We remembered God and were thankful to him. We shared with others less fortunate than ourselves. This is in keeping with the three tenets of my Sikh religion.

I had a happy childhood and I was nurtured because I was weak. I couldn’t walk until l was five. I wanted to be sporty, but until then, I lacked the strength. But I enjoyed watching all the simple sporting activities that were prevalent in the rural environment at the time. And I remember the joy all around me when I became strong enough to be able to walk.

As I never went to school, I farmed all of my working life. It was always handy to be able to run after straying cattle, but that was about as exciting as it got.

I didn’t really run competitively until I arrived in England 20 years ago.

Since then I have been looked after by one of my two remaining sons – this is the Asian culture where the parents are looked after by their children. I don’t speak English and not being able to communicate with those whom you meet does pose problems, but a smile always helps. I am usually accompanied, but over time I have become familiar with the routes and places I visit regularly. It must be equally frustrating for those who want to communicate with me. One thing is for sure: shouting or saying things slowly does not make it easier – this is what I observed from tourists visiting other countries! Being illiterate and monolingual does have its advantages – I am not aware of any abuse that may be directed at me. Anyone who is different sadly suffers this in the modern world.

When I attempted to run a marathon for the first time at 89, the reactions were mixed. Some were excited to see if I could do it and wished me well, others doubted I could do it. Those who have been constant in supporting me were my coach, Harmander; my running club, Sikhs in the City; and my family.

Training was easy: I just followed the instructions of my coach without question. If it was a training run, he never let me be exhausted as he said it is good to train but not so good to strain. When it came to the race, I was simply awestruck by the support from the crowds along the route. My coach always ran alongside me and held me back from exerting myself too much in the early stages of the race. He then encouraged me to keep going later on in the race, when the going got tough. I also then started talking to God to help me get through to the finish.

I don’t think I ran competitively in the true sense – it was simply a case of me finishing a distance as fast as I could. My records seem to be simply a by-product of my age. Records are meant to be broken and I wish the person who breaks my records all the best. If running a marathon at my age has inspired others to not give up then I am pleased to have had a positive impact on society.

My last race was the Hong Kong 10km in 2013 when I was 101. Currently, I am not able to run as I have a hernia, but I remember fondly the feeling of freedom when I used to run not so long ago. I am just pleased that I am still mobile and independent. I still walk about five miles each day.

Freedom for me is being independently mobile, and retaining a sound mind and a positive outlook. The rest is up to God.

Fauja Singh has been awarded the British Empire Medal. He is thought to be the oldest person to complete a marathon, but as India did not issue birth certificates in 1911, the record is deemed unofficial. This interview was translated by Harmander Singh

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