PYEONGCHANG, Korea, Republic Of — For her 50th birthday, Canadian curler Cheryl Bernard informed her husband that they would mark the occasion by hiking eight hours a day along Italy’s rugged Amalfi coast. “Seriously?” he replied.
Seriously. Also unsurprising. After all, one year later, Bernard would become the oldest Olympian competing at the Pyeongchang Winter Games — an achievement that was not born of holidays spent knocking back margaritas poolside.
Bernard’s story is a familiar one among this year’s set of older Olympians, who credit consistency, better knowledge of nutrition and age-won wisdom for the longevity of their careers. And longer careers may soon become the norm for elite athletes, with huge advances in sports medicine helping Olympians stay competitive into middle age, defying the idea that the Games are reserved for the young.
“The age of some of the best in the world in their sport has gone up over time, like the Roger Federers of the world, in a number of endurance sports,” says Robert Litchfield, a Canadian orthopedic surgeon who has operated on around 30 Olympic-level skiers.
“It’s not a given anymore that you’d become weaker and slower with aging,” he says. “You can maintain a lot of physical tools if you take good care of yourself — and the advantage (is) with age comes wisdom.”
For Bernard, taking good care of herself is a habit. Though she retired from competitive curling four years ago, she jumped at the chance to join Canada’s Olympic curling team as an alternate in Pyeongchang.
She was ready: Even in retirement, she had continued to curl and maintain her usual fitness regimen. She does 90 minutes of cardio and weight lifting a day, at least six days a week. She loves going for walks with her dog and, of course, hiking with her husband. She follows a protein-heavy diet that mainly consists of vegetables and meat, with the occasional glass of red wine.
“It’s just my lifestyle. It’s who I am,” Bernard says. “I feel like age is such a number these days. It’s changed. I look at people now and I think, ‘There’s no way you’re 40.”‘
Consistency has also been key to 45-year-old Japanese ski jumper Noriaki Kasai’s success. Kasai is competing in his eighth Olympics at Pyeongchang — a record — in a sport where many retire in their 20s. He trains the same way he has since he was young, and mirrors the workouts of his younger competitors. He’s even written an advice book on how people can achieve their best physical and mental health after age 40.
“I feel 20,” he said with a grin last week, shortly after completing a 99-meter jump.
Kasai also attributes experience to his continued success. He still learns something from every jump and studies his performance to see what can be improved.
That’s important, says Litchfield, who notes that older athletes actually have an edge over youngsters when it comes to familiarity of the competition sites, which they often have visited many times. At the outdoor ski venues, Litchfield says, a …read more