Review: What Makes Olga Run?

What Makes Olga RunWhat Makes Olga Run? The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives
By Bruce Grierson
2014, Random House, Canada

Review by Rosemary Anderson

Olga Kotelko has stood proudly on the podium several hundred times and smashed more than a couple of dozen world records since she took up track and field eighteen years ago–at the age of 77. She aims to smash a few more before she’s done.  What is her secret? One thing for sure is it isn’t all a matter of genes. As author Bruce Grierson puts it, “Olga doesn’t come from a long line of Methuselahs.”

In What Makes Olga Run? you might say Grierson has put Olga on yet another sort of pedestal, with his tale of the daily discipline and grinding routines that keep this 95-year-old woman from West Vancouver at the pinnacle of fitness for her age.

But this book is in no way a polemic idealizing a lithe old woman. Grierson masterfully navigates the dangerous waters of neoliberalism, which would have each of us in full control of (read: “blameworthy for”) our ideal fitness–or lack thereof – and thence whatever shortcomings of beauty and health that may afflict us.

Still, Grierson does admit to his own deep yearning to discover Olga’s secret. He used to be fit: “not Olga-fit, but fit,” he writes.  At around age 20 he had developed a running addiction that continued well into his forties. Then, at the ripe age of 47, he hit a wall. “Age flooded in all at once.” When Grierson met Olga, he was overcome by a burning desire to learn everything possible about her current habits as well as the habits she developed in her youth. “And could those habits be wrenches to fix the mistakes the rest of us are making,” he wondered, “before it’s too late?”

The book takes us on a fascinating journey of research and discovery as Olga submits to multiple tests to help scientists unravel the mystery of her physical and mental resilience. From a healthy-aging study in Vancouver to muscle tests in Montreal, DNA profiling in California, and brain scans in Illinois, a complex picture emerges about how we may be able to slow–and even, occasionally, reverse–the process of aging.

Insights are shared gradually, creating a satisfying degree of suspense while generally mirroring the chronology of the author’s own discoveries about Olga. We learn about her telomeres and genes, her brain agility and muscular activity, her quirky sleep and massage regimens, and the challenges of her past.  As each new gem of information is revealed, we are invited to examine it in the light of our own past and our own potential.

This is a book of hope, never judgment, and is as much about mental agility as physical fitness. It describes, for example, a community of Catholic nuns in St. Paul, Minnesota, noteworthy “for being not just extraordinarily long-lived but extraordinarily spry and sharp. Many of the School Sisters of Notre Dame have been centenarians–a group that ought to have a coin-toss chance of serious cognitive impairment. Yet in this particular convent, evidence of dementia is almost entirely absent… As a group, the sisters have a lot in common with Olga.” The book is liberally spiced with such tidbits, which are teased apart and mined for whatever lessons they may be able to offer up.

What Makes Olga Run? convinced me that age alone is no reason to give up on one’s dreams. Decades ago, I was a strong rower–I beat anyone and everyone who would race me. I dreamt of rowing in the Olympics but it turned out there was no chance of that because, back then, only men rowed in the Olympics. A while back, a friend asked me what had become of that dream. Did I just give up and forget about it? Well, yes, I did give up on it, but I never forgot it. Reading about Olga inspired me to do a little investigating. It turns out there are plenty of opportunities these days for men and women of literally any age to take up rowing and, yes, to compete if they so choose. Needless to say, I’ve signed up.

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