Book review: ‘Growing Old Competively’ is rich in images, stories

Many self-published books are vanity affairs. But not the marvelous photo-and-profile effort by Britain’s Alex Rotas. As noted recently, “Growing Old Competitively” focuses exclusively on masters tracksters. She attended major meets and captured dozens of stars in sharp relief. The last of the 43 images is haunting. It shows Belgium’s Emiel Pauwels savoring victory in a 400-meter dash at the Eurovets meet in 2012. Less than two years later, he was dead — in a publicly announced suicide. (She dedicates the book to him.) Alex graciously sent me the 56-page book, which I quickly devoured.

Jeanne Daprano would make a great screensaver for my laptop. She's also a great cover girl for Alex's book.

Jeanne Daprano would make a great screensaver for my laptop. She’s also a great cover girl for Alex’s book. (Thanks for featuring an American!)

Alex (which I assume is short for Alexandra like Phil for Philippa) is a self-made artist. She’s new to our niche as well as high-end sports photography. She says her masters-photo journey started in 2011.

“When I retired, I tried to take a look at media images of older sports people,” she writes on the back cover. “To my surprise, there seemed to be hardly any to find.” (I forgive her for overlooking galleries here. We’re kind of obscure.)

But I’m glad she took it on herself to shoot first and ask questions later. Using long Canon lenses, she preserved great moments at 2013 meets including the World Masters Games in Italy and British masters nationals.

We see M70 vaulter Reinhard Dahms and M85 800 man Allan Martin. We see W75 sprinter Leontine Vitola and W85 weight thrower Hiljia Bakhoff. The pattern emerges — she embraces the elders.

“I had a particular interest in photographing the older age groups,” she writes on a welcome page. “No doubt this interest stemmed partly from my own advancing years.” She noted the quality of our longer lives taking a nose-dive, with images of oldsters reflecting physical and mental decline. “I wanted to find and share an alternative visual narrative.”

Although Alex betrays no decline in her camera skills, she had some hiccups in print reproduction. Some images are darker than they should be. Shadows are deeper than needed. (She may have been misled by the printers, and told me she is thinking of corrections via a second printing.)

In any case, she nailed the essays accompanying the shots. These brief blurbs tell the birth year of the subject, their times or distances and sometimes even compare them to Usain Bolt’s Olympic efforts and records. Biographical info is often included. Classy.

From a longer bio: “[Andrew] Webb competed for Scotland in the 400-metre hurdles at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in 1970. He then had ‘time out’ from competition until he discovered masters athletics by having a go when the (world meet) came to Gateshead, near to his home, in 1999. He was hooked! … Standards in masters athletics are tough, however, and Webb considers it a considerable achievement when he brings home an international medal. … Webb follows a grueling training regime … that certainly made my eyes water when he described it to me in Turin.”

She introduces us to Leaping Rabbit, a W60 German vaulter as expected. She dives deeply into world-record-setter Rosemary Chrimes — a 1972 Olympian. She tells of W75 jumper/steepler and her “forty year break,” which ended when her daughter entered her in the London Marathon in her sixties. Marvelous yarns.

She’s a great reporter, too, choosing quotes wisely.

In her essay on M75 sprinter Tony Bowman, for example, she writes: “As for the very obvious effort he puts into competing, he said, ‘I can’t help it. Once I’m on the track, I have to go all out to win.'”

Wish a fresh set of eyes and words, Alex gives us revelations.

“As a non-athlete, I needed to keep comparing these times with those I’d seen on TV at events like the Olympics. So the world record for men in the 80-84 year old age group running 100 metres is 14.35; Bolt isn’t even twice that fast as the 90-94 year olds (17.53 seconds).”

Don’t believe Alex isn’t an athlete, however. She has a tennis background, which helps her twist and turn, bob and weave while gaining the perfect angle. Trust me, she gets a workout.

A touching photo shows M85 thrower Bill Daprano with arm around “lifelong rival” Katsuya Aso of Japan. Wife Jeanne Daprano tells Alex: “The real story is that 70 years ago they would have killed each other in the war. And now they are special friends. That is is the real miracle.”

That we still compete and enjoy being in the game well into our 90s (and sometimes later) is a miracle that Alex celebrates on every page. Photos show exertion, humor, wonder and skill. The design is simple and effective. The book delivers what it promises.

I count 30 men pictured and 21 women — one very special.

A two-page spread tells the story of Olga Kotelko, the Canadian world record machine Alex labeled “the superstar of the super-seniors.” Alex was lucky to meet her at 2014 Budapest indoor worlds. Olga died three months later. Her passing came after the book was sent to printer.

“I was photographing her javelin event when an official called out her name as next in line to throw,” Alex writes of M95 Olga. “Unfortunately (for him), he mispronounced it. She strode over to him and put him straight, came back and made her best throw. ‘It helps to get made,’ she said. ‘He said my name wrong and that made me mad. That’s good. I always compete best when I’m fired up.'”

That’s our Olga, and that’s our Alex — witness to history with images that do us historic justice.

Print Friendly

April 6, 2015

2 Responses

  1. Alex Rotas - April 15, 2015

    Thanks so much for this lovely write-up, Ken. Oops, really sorry I missed your galleries when I first started out :(. Even in the world of international events and virtual communication, that little pond between us can get in the way sometimes! Very grateful for the time you’ve taken to review my book and for your very kind words.
    Warm wishes, Alex.

  2. Ken Stone - April 16, 2015

    You’re very welcome, Alex!

Leave a Reply