'Never too late': Older athletes are breaking records at the 2022 Beijing Olympics
BEIJING – German speed skater Claudia Pechstein smiled wide, out of breath, as she crossed the finish line of the women's 3000 meter race on Feb. 5.
Pechstein, a long-time speed skater, looked ecstatic at her finish – which was dead last. She turns 50-years-old the month of the 2022 Beijing Olympics – her eighth.
"I was not too fast, but I smiled [after crossing the finish line] because today I got my goal to race in my eighth Olympic Games," she told reporters.
There is an old adage: "Age is just a number." It seems at these Winter Games, that's never been more true.
Pechstein didn't break speed records on Feb. 5, but she did make history as the oldest female athlete to compete at the Winter Games. She tied the record for appearances by Winter Olympians – also held by Japanese ski jumper Noriaki Kasai.
She is also the second-oldest Olympic speed skater, behind Great Britain's Albert Tebbit, who competed at age 52 in 1924.
Pechstein is part of a sizable group of "older" athletes– those over the age of 35 (which for a lifetime spent competing is considered older) – who are breaking records. Some are even winning medals while doing it.
NPR found at least 140 athletes from each participating country set to compete in these Winter Games that are over the age of 35, according to the Olympic Studies Center. This number may be updated later as the center said the final number of participants will only be known after the Games.
Among them: American snowboarders – Lindsey Jacobellis, 36, and Nick Baumgartner, 40 – who made history after winning gold at the mixed team snowboard cross event on Saturday.
Earlier in Beijing Jacobellis became the oldest American woman to win a gold medal at the Winter Games. Now she adds another. Baumgartner's win made him the oldest snowboarder to win a medal of any color at an Olympic Winter Games.
So far, the oldest medalist so far in Beijing is France's Johan Clarey. He won his first medal – a silver – at the age of 41. This is after competing in five prior Winter Games and coming nowhere close to the podium.
"I made everything late in my life, you know, since I was a young boy," he said after his win. "That's why my mother said that I took time to do everything – walking, speaking and everything. Apparently for my sport career it's quite the same."
Ice hockey is relying on older players this year
According to the Olympic Studies Center data, ice hockey has the highest number of athletes – 27 – over the age of 35.
Team Canada has five hockey players over the age of 35. One of them, Benjamin Street, turns 35 on Feb. 13 while at the Games — bringing the total to 6.
National teams had to scramble for athletes after the National Hockey League announced no players would be competing in the Beijing Olympics.
National teams, like Canada, sought hockey players from other professional divisions or recently retired athletes.
"When selecting our team, we selected the best players that were playing in leagues that did not include the National Hockey League, and built a team that we believe gives us the best chance to win a gold medal," said Spencer Sharkey, a spokesman for Team Canada's Men's Hockey.
Sharkey said, "If anything, it shows that players that have played for a long time are still able to compete at the highest level."
Curling benefits from experience
Curling follows ice hockey with 21 competitors over 35-years-old. The oldest this year is Norway's Torger Nergaard, who at 47-years-old, is competing in his sixth Olympic Games.
"I always try to have fun, so that's the most important thing I think," Nergaard said.
Nergaard has stuck around so long that he actually competed at the 2002 and 2006 Olympic Winter Games with the father of his current teammate, Magnus Vaagberg.
The oldest Olympian of all time was also a curler, Carl August Kronlund, who at 58, played for Sweden in 1924. He was not only the oldest medal winner at the Winter Olympics, but also the oldest competitor.
"While the elite aspect of the game is physically more demanding, modern training methods have allowed curlers to continue to compete at that level for longer," said Christopher Hamilton, with the World Curling Federation.
The skip position, which is more mentally demanding than other aspects of the game, benefits from a player with more age and experience, Hamilton said.
American John Shuster, 39, who is competing in his fifth Olympics in Beijing as a skip, says these Games may not be his last. He won gold four years ago at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
"Curling is obviously one of those sports where you can have some longevity," he said in Beijing. "I've been blessed with some great teams over my career and I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life. I feel like I'm still getting better so it's hard to think about stopping now or any time soon."
Athletes are refocusing on their health
Olympic athletes are following a broader trend of professional athletes competing for longer than they ever have.
Earlier this month, NFL quarterback Tom Brady announced his retirement at 45 after 22 years playing professional football.
At 37, Lebron James is still one of the best basketball players. And Sue Bird, who is still playing basketball at 41, is one of the greatest WNBA players of all time.
According to experts, that's thanks to improvements in training, nutrition and sports medicine.
Shuster said he's placed a focus on improving his health since 2014.
"The game has gotten younger and more athletic," he said in Beijing. "That's part of what I've done since 2014, getting into better shape."
Baumgartner said his path to gold required more work than ever.
"As you get older, it's tough to watch the young kids take over and try to push you out of the sport so that hunger is strong," he said after his win.
He encourages other 40-year-olds not to count themselves out too early.
"You're never too late to take what you want from life and follow your dreams," he said. "You let yourself down if you quit too early, doesn't matter how old you are."
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