Searching for the fountain of youth 

Bruce Grierson reveals nonagenarian Olga Kotelka's secrets to vitality

click to enlarge Whistler Writers Festival Bruce Grierson's What Makes Olga Run? has been nominated for the 2014 Vancouver Book Award.
  • Whistler Writers Festival Bruce Grierson's What Makes Olga Run? has been nominated for the 2014 Vancouver Book Award.

Whistler hosts the 2014 Writers Festival from Oct. 17 to 19. Pique is running reviews of books by attending authors to celebrate. For information and tickets: www.whistlerwritersfest.com.

My benchmark for my own death has always been to pass like my grandmother, Dorothy, peacefully, asleep in a rocking chair. She died of old age, at 76. Reading Bruce Grierson's What Makes Olga Run? The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star, and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives has changed that ideal.

Sure, I'd still like to die peacefully. But now, I'm erasing my mental image of the rocking chair, because Olga's story makes me think I can update my future, rewrite my so-called Old Age. Why is Olga so special? At age 77, Olga Kotelka, a retired schoolteacher, decided to give up slow-pitch softball and take up track and field. By the time she reached her early 90s, she held 26 world records. She competed in 11 different track and field events, and won hundreds of Master's medals in shot put, long jump, javelin, hammer and discus throws, high jump, 100-metre, 200-metre and 40-metre sprints. Physically and mentally, Olga is an outlier — so how does she do it?

Author Grierson takes us on a fascinating and humorous journey to find the answers to Olga's secret, her "fountain of youth." He tells the story of how he convinced Olga to undergo a battery of physical, genetic, and psychological tests. The scientists take blood and tissue samples, test her on treadmills, and check her muscle mass. Grierson joins her on the search by submitting to the same tests, and with much self-deprecating wit, compares his own results to Olga's. He examines her diet, which is healthy, but not extreme and includes lots of protein. Several of Olga's quirks are revealed, including her sleep routine, which is broken into two periods at night; daily self-massage; frequent Sudoku gaming; and a habit of sitting with her legs in the air against a wall before competition.

As their journey together progresses they become good friends, and Grierson chronicles how his exploration of Olga's incredible physical ability and mental verve causes him to redefine his own life. He slows down to appreciate his family, abandons being too uptight, and stops dreading birthdays that end in zeroes. In the book's final pages he lists the Big Nine, the rules for living more like Olga — rules that promote "vitality, longevity and happiness." Not all of the rules are based on physical improvement; at least half of them relate to attitude. As the experiment comes to a close, Grierson admits that "Olga's biggest gift to me turns out not to be a set of rules but a shift in perspective."

During her track career, Olga kept detailed records of every race. It would have been interesting to publish a page of her record-keeping in Grierson's book. I also wanted to see photos of her, too. I imagine Olga may have drawn the line at crossing this last bastion of her privacy. After all, she did agree to be poked and prodded and studied, mainly because she thought it could help our understanding of aging.

Sadly, Olga passed away at 95, three days after suffering a cranial hemorrhage. However, her legacy of how to build a healthy, happy life lives on in the pages of Grierson's book, which is a finalist for the 2014 Vancouver Book Award, to inspire us to shift our prejudices about what it means to grow old.

As part of the 2014 Whistler Writers Festival, award-winning author Bruce Grierson appears at the Saturday, Oct. 18 Writers of Non-Fiction event at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler at 10 a.m. What Makes Olga Run is a part of the One Book, One Corridor reading initiative taking place in October, to encourage communities to come together through shared reading experience. Contact the Whistler, Squamish or Pemberton libraries for more information.

Rebecca Wood Barrett is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Whistler, B.C.

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