What a 90-year-old can teach us about fitness

Canada’s Olga Kotelko competes in the women’s long jump during the Masters Games in Sydney Oct. 16, 2009.

During her long, remarkable life, Olga Kotelko lived through a rugged farm childhood, an unhappy marriage, single parenthood and a long career as a beloved school teacher.

Then, the Vancouver resident gained world fame as a track and field athlete, competing well into her 80s and 90s.

Ms. Kotelko, who was hailed as one of Canada’s most accomplished athletes and held 26 world records in her age category, died Tuesday. She was 95.

In her last years, she won hundreds of medals in events such as the high jump, long jump, triple jump, shot put, javelin, hammer and discus throws and the 100-metre, 200-metre and 400-metre sprints.

Her death was confirmed to The Globe and Mail by her daughter, Lynda Rabson.

According to her family, Ms. Kotelko died at Vancouver’s Lions Gate Hospital, three days after suffering from a cranial hemorrhage.

“She was a fearless competitor who tackled each new adventure with passion and determination,” her daughter said in a written tribute.

Just the previous weekend, in cold and rain, she had competed in three events at the Langley Pacific Invitational meet. Her last World Masters Championships were in March in Budapest.

A tiny, silver-haired woman with a gravelly voice and a can-do attitude, she garnered the attention of researchers and journalists for her vigour and longevity.

She appeared bemused and somewhat baffled why people were inspired by her story, the feel-good tale of a resilient woman who never let challenges restrict her life.

“She was so amazing,” said filmmaker Brandy Yanchyk, whose documentary Grey Glory profiles five extraordinarily active seniors including Ms. Kotelko. She spoke recently with Ms. Kotelko to let her know the documentary was to air on July 5 and 6 on OMNI TV.

In the documentary, a self-deprecating Ms. Kotelko talks about her passion for track and field, noting that she set the records for high jump, long jump and triple jump because no other women her age could do those events.

In truth, as her biographer, Bruce Grierson, noted, her results in other events such as javelin throw and the 100-metre run were significantly better than her rivals, even better than those of younger competitors.

And journalists who met her couldn’t help notice her dynamism. “When the cameraman and I were ready for a nap, she was awake and ready to take on more tasks. Olga truly was a phenomenon,” Ms. Yanchyk said.

Ms. Kotelko advocated a life of moderation, exercise and positive attitude. “I choose not to let the dark stuff have a negative effect on me,” she told Mr. Grierson, author of What Makes Olga Run?, in an article in The Globe last January.

She was born on March 2, 1919, the seventh of 11 children. Her parents, Wasyl Shawaga and Anna Bayda, were Ukrainian immigrants who came to Canada at the turn of the century and farmed wheat near the hamlet of Smuts, 50 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

Her sturdiness was already evident six weeks after her birth when her parents loaded all the children onto a horse-pulled sleigh to take the newborn to her baptism at the local Ukrainian Catholic church.

Along the way, Ms. Kotelko, who was bundled in a blanket, fell off the sleigh. The family rode for another mile before realizing the infant was missing. She wasn’t harmed.

In a book she co-wrote, Olga: The O.K. Way to a Healthy, Happy Life, she recalled a childhood on the family’s self-sufficient farm, where children were expected to pitch in from “sunrise to sunset,” milking cows, feeding pigs, harvesting grain, planting vegetables.

She attended classes in a one-room schoolhouse and, though she wasn’t a serious athlete, she played softball.

To complete her Grade 11 and 12 schooling, she was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Saskatoon, her father paying the nuns by bartering potatoes and cabbage.

She began a teaching career in 1941, instructing pupils in 11 subjects, in rural elementary schools in Saskatchewan.

She married an insurance salesman, John Kotelko, in 1943, but became quickly disenchanted by his controlling ways and frequent absences.

“As they grew older, I would warn my two daughters against marrying a man who has to travel to work,” she said in her book.

Eventually, by 1953, she left with her eight-year-old daughter, Nadine, while pregnant with her second child, Lynda.

She moved to New Westminster, B.C., to live with a sister.

As she resumed her career, she was also a rarity at the time, a single working mother. “None of my relatives or friends had ever done anything like that. I was the first one,” she recalled in an interview with Ms. Yanchyk.

She was a schoolteacher for three decades but had to face mandatory retirement when she turned 65, in 1984. (To show their appreciation, her Grade 1 students from the class of 1960 took her for dinner each year since 2005, to reminisce about their childhood.)

She joined a slo-pitch softball team, a hiking club and a bowling league.

Her enthusiasm for slo-pitch faded after a collision with another player while reaching for the ball. At the urging of two of her slo-pitch mentors, she tried track and field in 1996, at the age of 77.

“At first, throwing the javelin, shot put and discus was a challenge,” she recalled in her book. “I had never seen nor held these intriguing instruments.”

Her athletic success soon drew the attention of media outlets, from The Globe and Mail and CTV to The New York Times and the BBC.

“She functions more like a very healthy 70-year-old than a 93-year-old,” McGill University physiologist Russ Hepple told The Canadian Press two years ago, when she submitted to a series of tests for scientists studying aging.

Mr. Grierson reported that scientists put her on treadmills, checked her muscle mass and took tissue samples.

She had her own routines, telling Ms. Yanchyk that she massaged her hair and body and stretched at night, drank lots of milk and did aqua-fit three times a week.

Ms. Kotelko’s vivacity was on display when Ms. Yanchyk first met her in 2011. “We had a great time together talking about her life over a glass of red wine. I was 34, she was 91, but the age difference melted away. Olga was with it, she was full of energy and had her own opinions. I was glued to her every word,” the filmmaker said.

Ms. Kotelko is survived by her daughter, Lynda, and two grandchildren. She was predeceased by her eldest daughter, Nadine, in 1999, and by her 10 siblings.