Olga Kotelko dies at 95; book fame followed years of world records

Olga was a humble superstar.

This hurts to write. Olga Kotelko is dead. I got the tragic news from her Canadian author friend Bruce Grierson on Tuesday afternoon: “A major blood vessel feeding Olga’s brain ruptured on Saturday night. Blood bled into brain tissue and caused severe swelling — technically it was an intracranial hemorrhage. She died this morning. Doctors say she would have lost consciousness immediately — zero suffering. It was — albeit premature and shocking — the perfect way to go out. She left nothing significant undone or undreamed. Gerontologists talk about ‘squaring the curve’ — i.e., living life ablaze with little or no decline toward the end, and then an abrupt demise. Olga squared the curve with a ruler. It was a real gift to get to know her. She changed my life, for sure.” Bruce published “What Makes Olga Run?” this year and went on tour with her. Then she returned to training and competition, winning a bazillion medals at Budapest worlds while setting indoor and outdoor world records (a dozen?) in her new W95 age group. I met her several times, most notably at 2009 Lahti worlds (where I chatted with her at the athletes banquet). Her example is one we should all embrace: It’s never too late to be a track star! I will miss her terribly.

Olga posed with co-author Roxanne Davies before a scheduled Monday appearance in West Vancouver to promote her new book: “Olga, the OK Way to a Healthy, Happy Life.”

Here is a recent profile of Olga, only one of many:

TORONTO – Holding 26 world records and earning hundreds of medals would be significant achievements for any star athlete — let alone a retired schoolteacher who first took up track and field at age 77.

With her 95th birthday looming on March 2, Olga Kotelko isn’t inclined to look in the rear view at her accomplishments — she’d rather set fresh goals for the road ahead. The Vancouver resident is already scheduled for meets in Kamloops, B.C., and Budapest, and is aiming to participate in at least one each month this year, with 100-metre dash, long jump and javelin among the many events in her repertoire.

As a competitor on the masters circuit which features other veteran participants, Kotelko’s lofty medal haul and athletic accomplishments later in life have been a focal point of fascination. But asked for her own personal theories on why she has excelled, the kindly Kotelko offers only humility.

“I thought to myself this is something that I can do, that I enjoy it. I really do like competing and I stayed with it, and that’s what I’m doing now — and I don’t expect to stop. I don’t see any reasons why I should stop,” she said, a slight rasp trickling into her delicate, lilting voice.

“It’s good for me, it’s good for my health, and what I really want to do is share this experience of myself and my life with the people.”

Olga at 2011 worlds in Sacramento.

Award-winning writer Bruce Grierson spent more than a year working on a lengthy profile on Kotelko for the New York Times published in 2010. But after extensive research, he felt there was more still to be explored, forming the basis of his new book “What Makes Olga Run?” (Random House Canada.)

“There were so many dimensions to Olga’s story that weren’t particularly germane just to the science. It seems to be just about human flourishing that was bigger than the scope of the magazine piece. And I thought: ‘Yeah, now we’re into something bigger.’

“Not only can we talk about the science, but more and more, I like to share Olga with people, because I was really becoming beguiled by her personality and her strategies and all these things that are different than the science.”

Billed as a modern-day quest for the fountain of youth, the book explores how Kotelko and several other seniors continue to compete and thrive at a stage in their lives where many of their peers are slowing down rather than picking up the pace. In addition to undergoing tests of cognitive skills, muscle tissues and more, Grierson ruminates on whether other aspects of Kotelko’s life can help explain her physical prowess.

Born in Vonda, Sask., northeast of Saskatoon, Kotelko was the seventh of 11 kids raised on a farm during the Depression. She later left an abusive marriage to an alcoholic husband, heading west to forge her own path as a single mother in the 1950s. Her eldest daughter, Nadine, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 53, and died in 1999.

“That resilience that was kind of forged by having to overcome some tough stuff, that, to me, was a significant part of the story and still, I think, is a part of who Olga is — a big part of it,” said Grierson.

Still, there’s no question that her commitment to physical fitness plays a pivotal role.

Prior to her track training, Kotelko joined a softball league at age 70, playing five positions. She attends Aquafit classes three times a week. Her schoolyard training sessions involve intervals of jogging and walking, as well as several shot put throws and long jump attempts.

She also dedicates a key part of her downtime to keeping moving — even at the expense of sleep. While still lying in bed in the wee hours, Kotelko will devote 90 minutes to her self-customized “OK” exercise program that she’s followed for more than a decade, kneading her skin and muscles before she falls asleep.

Kotelko said she avoids fast food restaurants and eats everything in moderation, consuming small portions about four to five times daily.

Rather than viewing exercise as a fixed moment during the day, Grierson said the fact that Kotelko is consistently active has helped reshape his own definition of fitness.

“Olga grew up on a farm where she just did stuff all day long. You didn’t work out and just sit — you just moved. And she kept that habit going throughout her whole life. We’re now learning from the research that that’s the way you’ve got to do it. You just have to stay in motion.

“If you have to even choose between exercise training and not exercise training and moving around and just gardening and being active … and obviously you want to do both … you’d do the second one,” he added. “It’s more important to move than to be fit in the way that we think of being fit, aerobically fit.”

The book also sees the middle-aged Grierson parallel his own athletic ability to that of his subject, which includes taking part in a 10,000-metre race with Kotelko cheering him on from the sidelines.

“That was the hardest thing I think I ever did — harder than even some of those marathons — just to get through that just 10K. But I’d been feeling so unfit. I got winded not (long) before that playing Barrel of Monkeys with my kid,” he recalled.

“I feel like I’m righting the ship somewhat by going to school on what Olga does.”

While Kotelko said she’s treasured all of her achievements, carrying the Olympic torch as part of the relay for the 2010 Vancouver Games was a particular standout.

“I think that it’s once in a lifetime that you get an opportunity like that, but over 750 gold medals is quite treasured — and I give my medals away, I don’t keep them. Because why do I need 800 medals? At this point, I know I’m going to get some more.”

And here’s Olga only months ago:

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June 24, 2014

24 Responses

  1. Weia Reinboud - June 25, 2014

    This is very sad news, and so sudden. Glad to have seen her, last time at Budapest worlds.

  2. Ken Stone - June 25, 2014

    More details in my Times of San Diego obituary:
    http://timesofsandiego.com/sports/2014/06/25/olga-kotelko-track-field-superstar-dies-at-95-amid-book-fame/

  3. Tom Phillips - June 25, 2014

    To slightly alter a well-known quote: “Don’t be sad because she’s gone. Be happy she lived.” I had the privilege to photograph Olga on several occasions at WMA Championships, most recently in March. She was a delight to be around, and everything everyone says about this sparky, witty, wonderful record setter is true.

  4. Lesley Richardson - June 25, 2014

    I was so sad to hear the news this morning of Olga’s passing. I had the privilege of seeing her last at Budapest in March setting new world records. RIP Olga.

  5. Peter Taylor - June 25, 2014

    I’ll echo what Tom Phillips said. We are happy that we had Olga to share things with us and to have some fun while doing it. She was delightful, terrific, and a pleasure to know. I was fortunate enough to be with her on a few occasions, to announce her sometimes, and to appreciate her always.

  6. Karla Del Grande - June 25, 2014

    Olga was a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration to me and many other Masters athletes, especially Canadian women. The book by Bruce Grierson and Olga’s own book about the OK way, thankfully, will ensure that she lives on. She was more than OK — she was a one of a kind treasure and will be missed.

  7. Mary Harada - June 25, 2014

    I agree with all said above – what a grand role model, happy person, great athlete, and just all around nice person. I am sad that she is gone but I am happy that it was quickly over. We should all be so blessed to have a quick exit when the time comes.

  8. Cathy Utzschneider - June 25, 2014

    Everyone above has said it so well — it’s heart warming to read the tributes above. Olga was — is — an inspiration. She gave us the ultimate example.

  9. Rita Hanscom - June 25, 2014

    I really didn’t think she would ever leave us. She was just so darn sturdy and strong for a 95 year old. I will miss seeing her at the world meets. My life has certainly been enriched by knowing her.

  10. Christa Bortignon - June 25, 2014

    Olga was my inspiration and will be missed greatly by all. It is such a shock. We just had one of our little phone calls last week, were going to meet this week.

  11. Warren Hamill - June 25, 2014

    Olga, I always thought that I would see you again. You touched me deeply. You will be missed, and always remembered, with a smile.

  12. Grant Lamothe - June 25, 2014

    Bittersweet news, it’s so sad that Olga left us but sweet in that she went out without suffering and still -to the end- living the vibrant life that touched and inspired all of us that knew her.

    I just saw her at a local track meet last week, she was her usual self: cheerful, positive and happy and, of course, setting more world records. Thanks Olga for making the world better. We’ll miss you.

  13. Ken Stone - June 25, 2014

    Olga’s funeral will be at 10am July 3 at St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Vancouver, BC, her club has announced.

  14. Byrke Beller - June 25, 2014

    Warmest regards for an amazing woman. She will be missed!

  15. Bridget Cushen - June 25, 2014

    WMA has lost its best advertisement. She gracefully handled a posse of Press and TV cameras following her every move in Budapest. Olga embodied the very ethos of our sport, engendering international friendship and understanding whilst proving that competitive sport is for life. Glad I shared a coffee with her in Budapest, we will miss you.

  16. Barry Warmerdam - June 25, 2014

    Olga Kotelko – an inspirational figure who will be greatly missed! I met her several times; she was always genuine, humble, and friendly. May her soul, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

  17. Terry Parks - June 25, 2014

    As masters our race is as much against ourselves as it is against time. We race because we can and because we know that one day our racing days will be over. We hope that we compete with the grace and joy that Olga showed so brilliantly.

    The race is over for her now. No more records to break. No more medals to collect. All we can do now is to say thank you Olga for inspiring us and letting us watch you compete at the highest level and redefining what is possible.

    Rest in Peace.

  18. Rob Jerome - June 25, 2014

    Heaven shines a little more golden tonight.

    I have photographed Olga for many years and was fortunate to spend a good deal of time with her in Budapest. I was getting ready to email her about NCCWMA Costa Rica when I got the news.

    She will be missed terribly but, oh, the lessons she taught us all. She made history, plain and simple. How many people can say that?

  19. Earl Fee - June 25, 2014

    As everyone I was shocked and I believed she would live to over 110 breaking many further records. But she did it all. Recently she sent me her 2nd book “Olga–the OK Way.” I was about to compliment her on a very useful/entertaining book containing also her bio and her good sense of humour. She will be remembered and missed always,as a fine individual and a great example of what can be done in spite of senior age.

  20. Dr. Nancy Cochrane - June 25, 2014

    When CBC news announced Olga’s death today I shed tears of deep sadness. Olga brought us hope that it is possible to have a fully embraced life. Although she taught me more about psychology and mastering my own destiny than any degree could give me, I am sad that track and field meets will not be as meaningful without her gracious presence. We talked on Feb.15th in Kamloops and she grasped my hands with tears in her eyes when I was injured and left the track in a stretcher. I will never forget her caring words. She was a very loving person.
    I trust she is now loved and embraced by all the angels in Heaven.
    God bless you Olga, and thank you for what you taught us. I miss you already. Nancy Cochrane

  21. Dr Madeson Basie - June 29, 2014

    I too was surprised and shocked to hear of Olga’s passing. What an incredible inspiration ! I was so fortunate to meet her , all too briefly, and to know that we share the same family blood line-Bayda.
    She will always remain an inspiration to me , and many others.In the words of the CBC report , she remains indeed a “force of nature ”
    Vichnaya Pamyat

  22. James R Ingram Jr - July 2, 2014

    This is very sad news. Only recently did I get Bruce Grierson’s book “What Makes Olga Run” It made me realize what I could do for myself. She will be sadly missed. And then,maybe she will always be here in each of us.Fairwell Olga, maybe we will get to see you again.

  23. James R Ingram Jr - July 3, 2014

    I only learned about Olga this year from Bruce Grierson’s book. What a fabulous person! It seemed that I got to know her freom reading Mr, Grierson’s book, and will always regret not having a chance to meet her.

  24. Mary Roman - July 4, 2014

    Everyone has said everything about Olga that I could say. She was an inspiration to me. I knew her at World Meets but really spent time and had meals with her at the NCCA/WMA in St. John’s. We even warmed up together there. I believe she has given us all encourgement to continue on no matter what age.

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