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Older athletes make fierce competitors at Rio Olympics

These athletes prove younger isn’t necessarily better in the world of Olympic sport


 
He's back Michael Phelps spits water after swimming in the men's 200-meter individual medley preliminaries at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, Thursday, June 30, 2016, in Omaha, Neb. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

He’s back. Michael Phelps spits water after swimming in the men’s 200-meter individual medley preliminaries at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, Thursday, June 30, 2016, in Omaha, Neb. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Olympic athletes are accustomed to breaking records. It’s what they’re there to do, after all. But while most of us focus on the records being shattered on the field—or in the pool, on the track, you name it—the current crop of Olympians is also pushing the boundaries of what we typically consider the human body’s prime years for athletic achievement. The average age for athletes competing in Rio is 26, but several notable outliers stand out.

Take Mary Hanna, the 61-year-old Australian equestrian who’s the oldest athlete competing in Rio. This is her fifth swing at an Olympic medal. Philip Dutton, the oldest athlete with Team USA and another equestrian, is 52. They still fall far short of the oldest-ever Olympian, 1920 competitor Oscar Swahn of Sweden, who attended his third Olympics at the advanced age of 72. (Longtime Canadian equestrian Ian Millar was 65 years old when he won a silver medal in London four years ago, his record-setting 10th Summer Games.)

But it’s not just the competitors in sports that arguably involve less raw physical power who are getting older. This week, American cyclist Kristin Armstrong became the oldest woman to win a gold medal in her sport when she snagged her third consecutive top prize in the time trial on Wednesday, a day before her 43rd birthday; she was older than every other competitor by at least seven years. Jo Pavey is now the first British athlete to compete in five Olympics, having run the 10,000-m on Friday and placing 15th overall.

Lesley Thompson-Willie is the oldest member of Team Canada at 56 and has tied the record for the most Olympics in which a woman has competed: eight. As the rowing team’s coxswain, she’s competing alongside a group of 19- to 29-year-olds. On Wednesday, Thompson-Willie and her band of youthful teammates qualified for the women’s eight rowing finals, to be held Aug. 13.

Not far behind her is Oksana Chusovitina, the 41-year-old from Uzbekistan currently at her seventh consecutive Olympic competition. Chusovitina is a gymnast, a sport that had to install a minimum age requirement (16) and that athletes rarely compete in past their mid-twenties. Unsurprisingly, she’s the oldest woman to compete in the sport in Olympic history.

Last but obviously not least, American swimming sensation Michael Phelps. While at 31 he’s nowhere near the oldest competitor in Rio, he’s several years past the typical peak for male swimmers, which is around 24. And yet this year he’s already added another four gold medals to increase his personal total to 22, prompting CNN to note that the last Olympian to come close to Phelps’s medal count was Leonidas of Rhodes, “a runner who competed between 164 and 152 BC.”

While they’re not all shattering records that have stood for 2,000-odd years, all of these athletes prove that, despite what we may think about sport and fitness, youth isn’t a prerequisite for Olympic glory.


 

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