Teenagers the likes of Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles have stolen many of the headlines at the Rio Olympics, but there are some athletes at the opposite end of the age scale who are defying their age to compete.
Anthony Ervin, 35, USA, swimming
At the age of 31, Michael Phelps’ gold-medal winning exploits in Rio (his fifth Olympics) are truly incredible – but he’s not even the oldest gold medalist on the USA swim team.
In a sport where anything over 30 is considered past it, Anthony Ervin’s victory in the men’s 50m freestlye, earning himself the title of the fastest man at the Games, is pretty amazing.
Ervin won the 50m title in Sydney in 2000, and he reclaimed it in Rio, having retired for part of the period in between during which time he, among other things, played in a rock band, sold his gold medal on eBay to raise money for the Red Cross Tsunami relief fund, battled some personal demons, and got a bachelor’s degree in English.
Kerri Walsh Jennings, 38, USA, beach volleyball
On Wednesday night, Kerri Walsh Jennings won her fourth Olympic medal, and for the first time it wasn’t gold. The defeat that Walsh Jennings and her partner, April Ross, suffered in the semi-finals of the competition earlier this week was the first of an Olympic career that has spanned four Games. She had only lost two sets previously.
One of the things that makes Walsh Jennings so impressive is her attitude. After seeing her gold medal hopes ended with defeat to the Brazilian pair of Agatha and Barbara, the American took full responsibility for the loss.
“You have to pass the ball to win matches and I don’t know how many aces they got. Four per game maybe, on me? That’s unacceptable and inexcusable,” she said. “I’ve been served aggressively this whole tournament. And you can’t do anything without a pass. That’s what set the tone, and we didn’t get our mojo on anything else.”.
If only her compatriot, footballer Hope Solo was so gracious in defeat…
Oksana Chusovitina, 41, Uzbekistan, gymnastics
Gymnastics is known for its young stars, with teenagers widely dominating the sport for decades, so much so that Aly Raisman, the captain of the USA team, was nicknamed “Grandma”. Raisman is 22…
Don’t tell Chusovitina that though, with the Uzbekistan gymnast turning out in a phenomenal seventh Olympics against many competitors the same age as her 17-year-old son.
And don’t think Chusovitina is just making up the numbers either, she qualified for the final of the women’s vault and finished a highly creditable seventh.
Kristin Armstrong, 43, USA, cycling
Armstrong won her third consecutive gold in the women’s time trial a day before her 43rd birthday. In doing so she became the first cyclist to win three consecutive golds in the same event.
Armstrong has retired twice from the sport, but keeps on coming back for more. Why? “Because I can.”
“I think that for so long, we’ve been told that we should be finished at a certain age, and I think that there’s a lot of athletes out there that are actually showing that that’s not true,” said Armstrong after winning gold.
Oh, and she’s also the mother to a son, Lucas, and works as a community health advocate.
Lesley Thompson-Willie, 56, Canada, rowing
Thompson-Willie, the coxswain with Canada’s women’s eight rowing team, has expressed similar sentiments as Armstrong and hopes that the performance of older athletes will encourage people to stay fit.
“I think it’s redefining to our society that we can keep going, as long as we’re active,” she told the Globe and Mail. “Hopefully it’s a sign of the importance of being fit and being able to keep participating in things.”
After retiring following the 2000 Games, Thompson-Willie returned to action in 2005 after rowing coach Al Morrow expressed doubt as to whether she could make it to the 2008 Beijing Games. She proved him wrong and some.
While the role of coxswain involves tactics, motivation and navigation rather than rowing itself, the 56-year-old, who with her eighth Games appearance tied the record for most appearances by a woman, still has to keep her weight to a minimum and stay still enough to not rock the boat, literally.
At 56, Thompson-Willie is old enough to be the mother of many of her team-mates, as she lines up alongside a host of athletes in their 20s, and even 19-year-old Caileigh Filmer.
Julie Brougham, 62, New Zealand, equestrian
The oldest competitor at the Rio Games, Brougham is quite remarkably making her Olympic debut too. She’s only the third rider to represent New Zealand at such a level.
The 62-year-old credits her relationship with her horse, Vom Feinstein, for her age-defying success.
“It’s a unique partnership. OK, you have to be on a good horse and you have to be a good rider but there’s something extra there in terms of relationship between you and certainly that’s how I feel with Vom Feinsten,” Brougham told Reuters.
While Brougham didn’t qualify for the final, don’t write off her chances of making a return in Tokyo in 2020; the oldest athlete to ever compete in dressage was Arthur von Pongracz of Austria who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics at the sprightly age of 72.