Forever stoked, these extreme, evergreen athletes were born with a drive for adventure that stayed with them their entire lives.
A new British documentary, Ping Pong, takes an uplifting look at the world of geriatric table tennis. You are never too old to pick up a bat, Ping Pong suggests. Success goes to the young-at-heart and tenacious, according to a filmed Ping Pong senior, who recites a snatch from a poem that says, “life’s battles don’t always go to the one with the better plan. For more often than not, you will win, if only you think you can.”
Meet the lifelong athletes who know they can and still train hard in their twilight years.
Senior surfer Rabbit Kekai was recently nominated for induction into The Surfers’ Hall of Fame. Over his long career, among other gongs, the evergreen beach boy has won the Peruvian and Makaha International titles. Born on November 11, 1920, in Honolulu, Hawaii, Kekai had his first surf at 3 when his lifeguard uncle explained the basics. By 5, Kekai was surfing on his own. At 10, Kekai picked up some tips from surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku. As Kekai matured, despite academic scholarship offers, he decided to do odd beach-based jobs and innovate, surfing on finless boards. During the Second World War, Kekai was posted to the Pacific theatre, where he helped deploy underwater charges for the elite special-purpose Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) unit, targeting Japanese ships. After his daily naval duties were done, Kekai would surf. He won his Peruvian and Makaha International titles during the 50s, competing worldwide. Today, Kekai remains a keen competitor, routinely winning the over-50 division. The annual Waikiki Beach surf contest named after the diehard high-achiever is designed to encourage Hawaiian kids to get involved in the sport. Kekai, who hands the prizes to the winners, has lost track of his own triumphs. “When you pass 500 trophies, years and years ago, you lose count,” he told Surfline.
At the last count, extremely experienced athlete Ruth Frith was 102. Based in Brisbane, Australia, Frith is the world’s oldest living athlete and “documentary gold,” according to filmmaker Mandy Lake, who features Frith in the 2012 film, The 100+Club. Frith is one of three centenarians to star in the documentary, which reveals the great-grandmother’s athletic career began when she was 74, making her the world’s oldest athlete even then. Frith told the Queensland newspaper the Courier Mail that she wanted to be in the documentary to show younger generations that age is no barrier to achievement – you can always contribute. Lake said that some of the centenarians she interviewed for her film needed to relax occasionally. Not Frith. It was hard to keep up with her. To stay spry, Frith usually trains five days a week, bench pressing 35kg. She refrains from smoking, drinking and worrying about age. “I just think each year is another year but I don’t think, oh I’m going to be 99, I’m going to 100. You just enjoy each day and let the years go by,” Frith told Britain’s Daily Mail.
No twilight athlete commands more respect than Olga Kotelko. The Canadian track-and-field maestro holds 17 world records in her advanced Masters age group. Widely seen as one of the world’s greatest athletes, Kotelko was born on March 2, 1919. In her youth, her only athletic endeavour was baseball. After her 1984 retirement from teaching, she took up slow-pitch softball and shone at the sport but switched to track-and-field, leveraging the running and throwing skills she had built playing softball. At 77, Kotelko began training for track and field events under a Hungarian coach. Soon, Kotelko was breaking all kinds of records, in sports ranging from the hammer (5.64 meters) to the 100 meters sprint (23.95 seconds). Events she contests include long jump, high jump, triple jump, shot put, discus and more. In Vancouver in 2010, Kotelko carried the Olympic torch before the XXI Winter Olympic Games. The New York Times dubbed her “The Incredible Flying Nonagenarian.”
Known as “the world’s oldest female mountaineer,” Carol Masheter turned to high-altitude mountaineering to cope with grief when she reached 50 and her life went haywire – she lost her job, a relationship ended, her mother died: all within 18 months. Overriding her fear of heights, she went to South America to learn how to climb massive mountains. At 61, Masheter climbed the highest of them all, Mount Everest. Her book, No Magic Helicopter: An Aging Amazon’s Climb of Mount Everest, documents how she trained for and handled the climb of a lifetime. After No Magic Helicopter was released, the Utah Amazon became the oldest woman to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of seven continents. Her exhilaratingly tough campaign began with Aconcagua in Argentina, South America’s highest peak, when she was 60. In January, 2007, Masheter completed her campaign by summiting Mount Kosciuszko in Australia at 65. Her fitness secrets are a high-fiber low-fat diet, yoga, meditation and a cross-training regimen.
In a 2012 interview, senior surfer Eve Fletcher explained her long-term goals to California Surf Museum. “I plan to surf till I drop,” Fletcher said. “You are never too old to be stoked.” Now well into her 80s, Fletcher still hits the waves whenever she can with some long-time buddies at San Onofre, California. One of the oldest women still surfing, the veteran played a star role in the 2001 prize-winning documentary Surfing for Life, which profiles 10 star surfers who remain “active and engaged into their 7th, 8th and 9th decades.” Fletcher fell under surfing’s spell in 1957 when working as a cartoon editor for Disney Studios. Until then, with respect to sport, the high-achiever just skied a bit. One day at San Onofre, on meeting surfing legend Marge Calhoun, Fletcher asked a simple question, “how do you do this?” Calhoun’s answer was equally simple, “you just paddle and then stand up.” Fletcher never looked back. “The greatest thing about surfing is that you learn so much about the ocean, the birds, the porpoises. You forget all your problems,” she told Surf Museum.