Secrets of the Masters Athlete
Learn what keeps these inspirational athletes fit and focused.
The world of athletics is considered the territory of young people; sports news headlines are littered with 20-somethings making waves in their competition of choice. Once they’ve reached their prime, retirement is often considered the next step. However, there is a subset of competitors who buck the norm and refuse to hang up their sneakers and race bibs. Known as masters athletes, these inspiring individuals choose not to age quietly. The six athletes featured in this article are world champions and record holders—and they are proof positive that age is simply a number. They share their success stories and struggles; offer tips and techniques for staying physically dominant; and explain what drives their continued pursuit of victory.
Diana Nyad always felt a sense of urgency about her life.
“I can’t really trace back to when it all started, but I got the ‘choking speed of life’ thing going by a very early age,” says the ultra-long-distance swimmer who recently became the only person ever to complete the dangerous 110-mile Cuba-to-Florida swim.
“For some reason, when I was 8 or 9 years old I woke up panting. If I’m 8 and my grandparents lived to 88, I only have 80 years left! I’m running out of time.”
So began Nyad’s feverish quest for physical excellence and self-improvement. What she’s learned along the way may change how you view training.
These days, Nyad is less interested in the accolades and recognition she received as a young competitive swimmer. Her rigorous training programs are driven by a desire to be better connected to the world around her.
“Top of the line, fitness keeps me fit at my age, and plays a huge role in staying engaged,” she explains. “It keeps me 100% full-out living. I take care of this body first. I make sure that this machine is the best it can be.”
When Nyad trained for the successful Cuba swim—she had attempted the feat several times, suffering debilitating box jellyfish stings, torrid waters and shark threats along the way—her weekly regimen was enough to make the most accomplished athletes shudder.
Every other day she’d complete long swims lasting anywhere from 12 to 22 hours, stopping not a second short of her goal time, she insists. On nonswim days, she performed a nine-exercise circuit that included pull-ups—she would do 25, which she boasts isn’t bad for a 64-year-old—some yoga, an abdominal move, cardio intervals and more. She’d repeat the circuit for 2.5 hours. Nyad believes this plan minimized wear and tear on her body and spirit.
“This routine gave my shoulders a rest and my spirit a rest,” she says. “I didn’t have to get up at 3:30 every morning and force-feed [myself]. I didn’t have to put myself through those demands every single day. The recovery was good.”
Interestingly, it was this routine that led her to fulfilling her goal. During previous attempts she had focused mostly on swimming.
Recently, while Nyad was traveling by plane, the man in the seat next to her recognized the athlete and struck up a conversation. “He said, ‘You must really love swimming,’” Nyad recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know. I just finished an 18-hour swim and was vomiting throughout. I can’t say it’s that I love the feeling of swimming. I love having an elevated spirit and being engaged with the planet more than the experience of swimming itself.’”
Nyad points out that this engagement she feels, while gliding through the vast sea for hours on end with only the stars for company, is her secret to perpetual motion.
She urges others to develop a deeper connection with physical activity, beyond praise and medals. She concedes that during her early athletic years she was much more self-centric, which she says prevented her from being a truly top-notch athlete.
“When you’re ‘me-me-me’ all the time, you don’t get the whole experience,” she advises. “You don’t get to be as good as you could be. When there’s joy in it, you will have an elevated experience.”
On July 15, 2012, in Carson, California, Tim Anderson was preparing to push his body to its limits. As co-owner and coach of South Tahoe CrossFit in South Lake Tahoe, California, he knew he’d need to be ready for anything. After a grueling day of chest-to-bar pull-ups, “wall balls” and “dog sled” pushes, Anderson took first place in the 55–59 age division of the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games. He was 59, and this was his first victory.
Since then, he has remained focused on winning another title. However, he was disqualified from participating in this year’s games based on a rejected video submission.
“It was a pretty bitter pill to swallow, as the judge, who was a qualified trainer and competitor, counted every rep as good,” he laments. “As this was my first year in the 60-and-over division, I felt I had a good shot at giving the two-time reigning champ (and incredible person) a run for his money. I was ranked third in the world before the debacle. I’d say I’m pretty fired up to get back to the games and prove I deserve to be there again.”
Disqualification was tough for Anderson, but he hasn’t let the setback deter him from competition. He’s recently developed a fondness for powerlifting.
“My first meet was in March at the California State Powerlifting Championships,” he says. “I set a state record for the dead lift and a national record for overall poundage (dead lift, bench press, and squat combined weight) in the 55–59 age (198-pound) category. Now that I’m 60, I intend to set new state, national and possibly international records!”
Anderson notes that one of the biggest barriers to training is injury. He’s suffered a blown-out shoulder, a detached abdominal muscle, bone spurs and more. To address these issues, he seeks the guidance of qualified professionals and shifts training emphasis to unaffected areas of his body. Anderson insists he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If I sat on the couch, I wouldn’t have injuries, but I’d probably be a candidate for diabetes or heart disease,” he says. “Training keeps me young and fit. It’s nice to see the look on people’s faces when I tell them I’m 60! It’s fun and challenging to go against kids in their 20s and hand it to them. Of course, I get my butt kicked too, but then I merely pull the ‘old’ card!”
His advice for younger generations? Train smart.
“Take care of your body,” he tells them. “Eat good food; get rest. You won’t always be bulletproof, so the better care you take now, the better off you’ll be [later]! Having said that, go for it! Find something that you love to do, and being fit will never be a chore.”
Regarding nutrition, Anderson sticks mostly to the Paleo DietTM, with the odd cookie or piece of chocolate thrown in. He keeps his training, which consists mainly of powerlifting, to 5 days per week, completing a “strongman” workout of the day on Sundays.
“When I’m training for the games, I’ll increase my training by adding extra workouts two to three times a week,” he says. In the meantime, Anderson has his sights set on opening a new CrossFit gym in the very near future.
Track and Field
Born in Scotland in 1933, Rosemary Chrimes first began competing internationally for the British track and field team when she was 30. Known then as Rosemary Payne, she logged numerous competitions, specializing in the discus throw. In 1972, she took 12th place at the Olympic Games in Munich, and 2 years later, she retired.
“I’d always said you’re not a real athlete until you make it to the Olympics,” she explains in an article for the Southern Reporter. However, I had actually been thinking about retiring in 1970, but then thought I’d give it another go and really trained hard in 1971 and 1972. I was thrilled to make it to the Olympic final because there was really tough competition from all the Russians, Bulgarians and East Germans who dominated the sport back then.”
Chrimes dusted off her sneakers again in 1988 and since then has won numerous awards and trophies. She holds several world records for her age group in the discus throw and shot put.
Now, after a long career, 81-year-old Chrimes is again eyeing retirement because she feels her body is reaching a point of diminishing returns.
“At the moment I am not really training at all,” she says, “partly because I am getting injured more easily and also because the facilities I used to use regularly are nonexistent. At present, the track and field area at [the local] university is a building site!”
Although she’s not officially in training, Chrimes remains active, however. “For several years I have concentrated on keeping generally fit and healthy. [I participate in] keep-fit classes for ‘oldies,’ music and movement, a bit of swimming, some golf, regular walking. In the bad weather, I [go to] a gym with bikes and rowing machines. I do a lot of stretching exercises as well. However, I am getting a lot of osteoarthritis, and my joints are giving me a bit of trouble. I still try to do something active every day. It’s a lifetime habit.”
Though she suffers from various ailments, Chrimes believes that smart training has minimized age-related physical decline. “I have had to modify my level of training a great deal because of the deterioration of the body due to age, but if you keep ticking over [doing some exercise every day], it is possible to slow down the deterioration,” she advises.
Chrimes says she doesn’t follow any specific diet. “I love fruit and plain food, don’t smoke, drink very little alcohol—the usual advice. I don’t like my weight to go up too much, and I can still get into clothes I bought 30 years ago!”
Before Chrimes officially retires, she plans to give competing another go—but only if she feels she can give it a fighting chance. “I’ve got a hamstring problem that I may get rid of in time for Great Britain Masters Champs,” she says. “I don’t want to be competing for the sake of it. The events need to be done properly. What’s the point of records if you are the last one standing?”
In 2012, George Fair was goaded out of retirement by his wife, who challenged him to complete the Lake Placid Ironman®.
“I wasn’t sure how this body would respond to the training required,” says the 67-year-old West Chester, Pennsylvania, resident. “I wasn’t sure how all of those parts would respond and if I could even complete the training required. Declining muscle mass and bone density, decreasing VO2 and lower lactate heart rate were some of the issues [I’d have] to deal with. Not to mention I was 200 pounds.”
Fair knew that if he was going to give the race an honest try, he’d need help. “I promised my family that I would be careful and try not to die attempting this feat; that meant enlisting the services of two USAT level 1 coaches to devise a plan to help me get to the finish line,” says Fair.
The plan followed a 7-day cycle, in which he’d bike, swim and run three times each week. He initially trained for about 1–2 hours a day, ramping up to 20-plus hours per week as the event drew closer. “I never swam much [when I was younger], so I took a triathlon swim course to get me more comfortable in the water,” he adds. “I knew the biking would take time. I had always run, so that was one thing I didn’t need to worry about.”
Fair gives plenty of credit to his wife, who took responsibility for all of his nutrition, supplement and recovery-drink needs.
“I’m so lucky to have her help me,” he says.
As training progressed, Fair’s motivation to continue waned
a bit, so in November 2012 he joined a local triathlon club. That same month he completed the Philadelphia Marathon, which qualified him for the Boston Marathon. “The support and encouragement I received along the way was monumental. My Boston Marathon qualifier would not have been possible without my friend Claire, who coaxed this master along. How quickly I found that I could not be the Energizer bunny all the time! Sleep and rest became just as important as my daily training. Learning when to push and when to go slower in the training took time. I wanted to go hard all the time, and that’s why the coaches were there to slow me down on occasion.”
Like many competitive athletes, Fair learned the hard way that it can be dangerous to go all-out all the time. He suffered his share of injuries and setbacks—many of which he relieved with foam rolling, massage, stretching and yoga.
“During those 18 months leading up to my Ironman event, the thing I was most proud of was my 4:03 time in the Philadelphia Marathon, which qualified me for the Boston Marathon, and having my family watch me win my age group in the Senior Olympics qualifying event in Cleveland,” Fair says.
In July 2013, Fair successfully completed the Lake Placid Ironman, and in June of this year he finished the Ironman 70.3 in Cambridge, Maryland. He shows no signs of slowing down. As this goes to print, he is scheduled to take part in another Ironman 70.3 in August.
Ita Pantilat got her first taste of athletics as a young gymnast, but eventually she gave up gymnastics. After high school, she completed 21⁄2 years in the Israeli army and then joined the track and field club. That, too, was sidelined.
“I got married when I was 22 and had two kids,” she says. “I didn’t have time to focus on sports anymore.”
At age 30, Pantilat moved from her native Israel to the United States with her family and took a full-time job as a nurse. It wasn’t until her children moved out of the house and she lost her husband to a brain tumor that she rekindled her love of physical activity.
“Nobody was home, so I joined a gym,” says Pantilat, who now resides in Sammamish, Washington. “I always liked to lift weights—I don’t know why—so I focused on that. Eventually I met a woman who was into bodybuilding, so I gave that a try.”
After competing in five bodybuilding events “for fun,” she chose to stop. “I didn’t like it, because I didn’t find it to be a sport,” she says. “I also didn’t like the training.” Pantilat then turned to powerlifting and trained “seriously” from age 54 to age 58. She excelled at the bench press and still holds a world record for benching 242 pounds while she weighed 123 pounds. Currently, she focuses on weightlifting and holds world records in her age and weight group for the snatch and the clean and jerk.
The 62-year-old Pantilat, who is also an ACE-certified personal trainer, insists that the key to her success is maintaining a strong mind-body connection. “When you’re older, you get smarter. The key when you’re older is that you know your body. I have experience, and I know what’s good for me. I follow what the coach says, but I let him know that I know my body and I know what I need to do.”
Instead of following a traditional weightlifting program that requires a few reps of heavy weights, she aims for lighter weights and more repetitions. She says this helps train her nervous system, which she believes is vital to ensuring optimal form, speed
and technique. “I think that’s what older people don’t do, and [so] they lose speed. You need strength, but you have to work on your nervous system.”
Though she thrives on competition, Pantilat says that at the root of her pursuits is a genuine love for training. “I think the main thing is you have to love what you do,” she says. “I wait every day to go to the gym. If I don’t go, I feel bad.”
She adds that exercise is an absolute must for everyone, but not everyone has to exercise the same way. “I think exercise has to be part of your routine,” she advises. “Just like you eat every day, you have to exercise every day. I won’t miss breakfast, dinner or lunch. I won’t miss exercise. Set the schedule, and you know that’s the time for your workout. At the beginning it’s hard. After 1 or 2 months, it’s part of the routine, and your body begins to need it.”
Pantilat knows that her body may not be able to keep on handling the rigors of her sport—she’s dealing with a few nagging injuries—but that doesn’t mean she’ll give up competition altogether.
“If I have to stop weights, I’ll go to track and field,” she says. “I always want to do something. When I do it, I feel good. When I’m 100, I’ll finish the 100 meters!”
Linus van Onselen
In August 2013, at the Cascades Mountain Bike Park course in Pietermartizburg, South Africa, 61-year-old Linus van Onselen edged past his opponents to claim top prize at the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) Mountain Bike Masters World Championships.
Thrilled, van Onselen insisted that he simply wanted to place and never anticipated a win. “I am so happy that I was able to hold off the other riders to win a World Championship,” he explained in a press release. “I came into the event hoping to get a podium but I am so happy that I managed to go even better than that and finish at the top of the podium.”
Van Onselen also competes in road-bike events and spends about 70% of his 15-hours-per-week training time on the road. “I do 8–10 hours over weekends and the remaining hours during the week, with Monday and Friday as my rest days,” says the athlete. “Weekend riding is normally long slow distance, while riding during the week consists of interval and high-intensity training.”
He emphasizes rest, which is something he finds is lacking among many of his competitors.
“The older you get, the more recovery time you need,” van Onselen explains. “Eight hours of sleep at night is very important. Competitors tend to ask you about the amount of training you have done, but never ask about how much you have rested.”
Physically, van Onselen has fared well, aside from the bumps and bruises—and a recent concussion—that stem from falling, which he notes is always a risk. He doesn’t follow a specific diet plan, but he prefers to eat fruits, salads, pasta and protein, and minimizes starch and animal-fat intake. “I do however like chocolates, beer and wine,” he adds.
Van Onselen hasn’t had formal coaching. “I was able to pick up a lot of good advice over the years and also believe that I’m not too old to learn. I do believe if you see training as your work, your race/competition will become your pleasure,” he says. “Competing in my age group actually gives me a second life and inspires me to stay fit, with all the benefits associated with it.”
He is self-driven and explains that discipline has always been a part of his DNA. However, he knows that external support plays a significant role in his dedication.
“My family is fitness conscious, which helped a lot with minor modifications to our/my regimen,” he says. “Over the years you also tend to surround yourself with people and friends who live a similar lifestyle.”
Warning that the decision to compete must be made carefully, he advises young athletes to assess the effort they’re willing to put into their sport of choice.
“If you are serious with your sport but not a professional athlete, keep a good balance. If you have a family and a good job, see those as your first priorities. If your training/sport is not the next priority, you will not make the grade as a serious athlete. If you decide to be a professional athlete, go flat-out and not the next priority, you will not make the grade as a serious athlete. If you decide to be a professional athlete, go flat-out and make your training and preparation your first priority.”
Whether the goal is competition or improved physical capacity, all of these masters insist that exercise is the primary ingredient that has kept them strong and healthy. These world record holders and gold medalist emphasize “training smart” and choosing an activity that gives them joy beyond competition. Finally, they say, it’s important to maintain a youthful mindset. As Pantilat says, “I don’t believe in age. If you want to do something, you have to try and do it.”