I was recently asked which of the many older athletes I have photographed have stood out. It’s such a tough question because what I’ve discovered is every single person competing at the events I go to has a story. They are all exceptional, amazing people.
But let me tell you about Olga.
Olga Kotelko, from Canada, was born in 1919. She took up competitive track and field events at the age of 77 when she was kicked off her softball team in Vancouver for being ‘too old.’ Pretty soon she was competing, winning and setting national and international records in her age groups right across the board in track and field events. She set Canadian pole vault records in the 80-84 year old age group (think about it – an 80 year old woman doing pole vault) right through to the 400m and 800m when she was in the 90-94 year old age band.
Olga still holds unbeaten world records in the 90-94 year old age group and the 95-99 year old category in the indoor 60-metre and 200-metre sprints, the high jump (her record for the 85-89 year old age group remains unbroken too), long jump, triple jump, shot put, weight throw, pentathlon and the outdoor high jump, long jump and triple jump as well as the discus, hammer, javelin and weight throws. Pretty amazing, huh?
But as well as being an extraordinary athlete, Olga was also the most wonderful, generous-hearted and big-spirited human being. She laughed a lot. Last year she turned 95 and immediately got on a plane to make a complicated and arduous plane trip to Budapest, Hungary, for the World Indoor Athletics Championships. She was thrilled to be in a new age group where she could set about making new world records in a new age band.
She never did jet-lag. She seemed surprised when I even mentioned the notion to her. A nine hour difference didn’t blip her radar and she cheerfully entered nine events in Budapest, setting world records in seven of them and inevitably – due, it has to be said, to lack of competition – becoming world champion in all nine. In the 60m dash (there isn’t a 100m race in indoor championships) she crossed the line in 16.53 seconds, a tenth of a second faster than the winner of the 60m race for the 85-89 year old age group.
What was incredible about Olga was the way she just quietly carried on having fun. You had the sense when you were around her that she was continually having the time of her life. In Budapest I’d arranged for a young friend of mine from the BBC to interview her. Smitha, the interviewer and film-maker, had asked her to stand in front of a notice board and put on her competitor’s bib while she was being filmed, as though in preparation for a race. Three times they tried to film this and every single time a different and charming chivalrous male athlete would appear from the shadows to assist her in the process. By the third time, both Smitha and Olga (and me too, watching from the sidelines) were cracking up, unable to contain our laughter. Olga was a tiny woman with one big, attractive, loveable personality that just shone through.
I was writing a book at the time and it was almost in press. I raced to add a couple of photos of Olga and a description of her achievements in Budapest into the copy when I returned home and it went to press in June. I sent a copy immediately to Olga together with some of the photos I’d taken of her in Hungary. And then I heard from Smitha, the BBC reporter, who called me distraught, saying ‘have you heard about Olga?’.
I hadn’t – Olga had died of a brain haemorrhage a couple of days earlier. Over the weekend she’d been competing in an athletics event in Kamploops and then two days later she went to bed and didn’t regain consciousness. It was a perfect death in so many ways: she ‘squared the circle’, living life ablaze until the moment of her passing. But for those of us left behind in the masters athletics world, well, we just felt bereaved. What a life she lived and what a hole she has left behind.
I feel incredibly indebted to Olga on so many levels. I saw for myself what a woman in her mid-90s can achieve in track and field (it was from Olga that I learn that elderly wrists aren’t necessarily going to break when you fall on them) and I met an exceptional human being who lived life fully right up to the moment of her death.
And now, thanks to her, more new friendships are opening up for me, friendships that I could never have imagined or anticipated before I started this project of mine that has brought me into contact with so many people I would never otherwise have met. My life literally feels as though it’s getting bigger at a time when it could so easily be contracting and getting smaller.
Olga became a twenty-first century superstar. She had a website www.olgakotelko.com with the strapline ‘Giving Up Is Never OK’. She had just completed her own book when she arrived in Budapest and it was at the printers when we talked there, the culmination of two years’ hard work.
“Imagine,” she told me, “I never knew I could do athletics still I started at 77. And I never knew I could write till I tried at 93.”
She looked bemused and then laughed. “Do you know anyone else who’s done these things at my age?”