Encouraging news for those of advancing years – you may not be past your peak.
Reading the news these days is not the best way to brighten the morning mood. Same old, same old. Brexit is a mess. Trump is …… Climate change has produced yet another flood, drought or forest fire. But just as I’m about to stick my head in the sand and lighten the mood with a saccharine Netflix romcom, a truly inspiring headline leaps out from an otherwise miserable newsfeed. “Champions are getting older.” Nothing perks up an ageing sportsperson more than positive news about ageing sportspeople – and it was off the BBC website, so it MUST be true. The research was prompted by the efforts of tennis stars Roger Federer and Serena Williams who defy all accepted wisdom by remaining at the top of a brutally intense sport aged 37 and 36 respectively. Exceptional they may be; however, the average ages of the top 100 men and women has risen by 3 years since 1984. In golf, although the top 5 are in their 20s, the average age of the top 100 has risen from 32 to 37 since 1980 and a rebuilt Tiger Woods is making something of a comeback aged 42.
And what of sports where explosive power and flexibility are indispensable – like diving and gymnastics? The latter, especially the women’s game, is famously the preserve of flea-like teenagers. Aly Raisman, the U.S. team’s captain, a prehistoric 22 years old, is affectionately known as ‘Grandma Aly’ by her teammates. But she is a mere foetus compared to Oskana Chusovitina, originally from Uzbekistan, who is arguably the most astonishing athlete of all time. At Rio in 2016, she entered her 7th Olympics aged 41 (her 16 year old son was watching). And nor did she just make up the numbers. She is a multi-medallist. In 1991 she was the first ever to complete a double back lay-out somersault with full twist; and 27 years later, she still has it in her routine. She is surely something of an outlier. Nevertheless she is a human with the regulation number of limbs and organs – and so remains proof as to what’s possible. So what actually is going on?
Sian Allen, a physiologist from NZ, says you must never underestimate the power of nous, even in sports that appear to be all about strength. For example in cycling she’s noted how good the experienced riders are at conserving energy by riding smart and drafting. The best also favour a degree of mental training of endless physical repetition. Gymnast Chusovitina: “I have muscle memory that my body has developed over the years. And then I visualize exactly how the skill needs to be done. All the mental preparation that I do just transfers to the gym and I know exactly what my body needs to be doing.”
Young and old windy types
So what about windsurfing? The BBC study didn’t include our sport, so I did my own research. That’s the thing with statistics. You can prove just about anything you want to depending which lump of stats you grab – so I have simply examined the separate disciplines over the last 10 years. In most instances the average ages of the top 10 are much the same. In the women’s freestyle in 2008 and 2018 it was 27. In waves it was 31. And in the men’s wave competition, the average remained at 28.
However, in freestyle it leapt from 22 to 27. That was partly due in around 2006 to the freestyle ‘youthquake’ emanating out of Bonaire and Isla Margerita. Guys like Gollito Estredo, Kiri Thode and the Frans brothers dominated in their mid-teens and are still at it today. But also freestyle has become more competitive – and once tactics become involved, older heads tend to prevail. There were no teenagers in the 2018 top ten.
As expected the profile of slalom is older and has increased slightly from 32 to 34. (There was a great ‘old guys rule’ moment in 2012 when the average age of the top three, Dunkerbeck, Albeau and Buzianis, was 42).
What the stats do show, is firstly that windsurfing either is blessed with some incredible specimens – or that it doesn’t place an unholy strain on the body compared to other sports. The incredible Moreno twins are still winning and getting better aged 40. Antoine Albeau shows no sign of letting up aged 46. Kevin Pritchard won the Aloha classic aged 42. It may just be that windsurfing is such an incredible way to make a living that no one wants to give it up.
But what is really encouraging, and what has increased over 10 years, is the spread of ages excelling in each discipline. Slalom, for example, is apparently no longer just the pursuit of elderly kit freaks. 22 years separates the most junior, Mateus Isaac (24), and most senior, Antoine Albeau (46). And with ages spread evenly over 3 decades, it’s now a game for all the family. In freestyle the spread is 11 years – Nicolas Akgazciyan and Steven van Broekhoven are still flipping and contorting well into their 30s. Those revelations are no surprise to most of us. Next week I head to Donegal for a month of wave clinics, where I will be joined by, amongst others, 19 year old go-for-it Rory and 67 year old retired vet Adam. The latter will still be out there when the rest have retired for a nap. As you get older, you tend to make more efficient use of what you’ve got – and I should know.
Peter Hart – 26th August 2018
Daida Ruana Moreno still improving at 40. PHOTO John Carter/pwaworldtour.com.