Book review: ‘What Makes Olga Run?’ could revolutionize society

Book is bestseller bound.

Call it Aerobics 2.0. If boomers (and their parents) start rolling wine bottles under their backs at 3 a.m., drain the market of Sudoku puzzles and take up the Western roll, we’ll have Bruce Grierson to thank. Olga Kotelko, too. Five decades after Ken Cooper’s call to action fueled the running boom, “What Makes Olga Run?” is poised to give longevity hopes (and masters track) rockstar status. Bruce’s book, officially published today by Henry Holt and Company, is subtitled “The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives.” By the time she turns 95 in March, Olga will need an agent to screen appearance requests. Buy stock in Sharpie. With a Parade magazine cover behind her and a segment on NBC’s “Today” show coming up Friday, Olga is on the cusp of major celebrity. Bruce did justice to Olga, and our crazy sport.

This isn’t the first time masters track has gotten world-class attention.

Lee Bergquist’s “Second Wind: Rise of the Ageless Athlete” (which I reviewed in April 2010) was a wonderful series of profiles. German director Jan Tenhaven’s “Herbstgold” followed five older-age athletes to Lahti worlds (with a cameo by Olga). Longevity secrets were a major draw of Earl Fee’s “One Hundred Years Young the Natural Way,” which I noted in November 2011.

But nothing touches “What Makes Olga Run?” for plumbing the depths of our psyche, physiology and sense of phun.

Lahti star Ugo Sansonetti helped save track for 70-plus in Italy, the book reports.

It helps that Bruce is a Crackerjack writer — meaning he hides surprises in every chapter. I pride myself on knowing masters history, but I’d never heard of a 1999 incident detailed on pages 28-29. Bruce says the Italian sports minister nearly banned track in his country for folks over 70 — until WR man Ugo Sansonetti and three 80-something chums “issued a challenge to the minister. If the team of octogenarians he assembled ran the 4×100 in under a minute, would that bury the issue once and for all?”

Bruce says 15 million TV viewers watched the relay go sub-60, and “the idea of banning masters athletics was never credibly raised again — in Italy or anywhere else.” (The listed M80 world record is 61.83 by a German team, but I can believe Sansonetti’s squad was capable of breaking the minute barrier.)

Olga, a Saskatchewan farm girl who lives with her daughter and son-in-law in British Columbia, gave Bruce a ticket to her heart and mind. Then he bought tickets to research centers around North America. Olga was tested for VO2 max, maximum heart rate (138!), DNA clues to her athletic prowess and mental acuity and toughness.

Olga Kotelko, running at Lahti, is coached by masters legend Harold Morioka.

The odyssey was a grind, but Olga rolled with it. It actually helped add purpose to her life, Bruce suggests.

“I am an open book,” Olga effectively says, according to Bruce. “Poke, prod, siphon, scan, interrogate, use me; just make it count.”

Bruce walked the walk as well.

He underwent similar treadmill and brain testing — as a means of comparing sedentary apples with ageless oranges. And in 2011, he entered the M45 10,000 at Sacramento worlds. He took 27th out of 28 with his time of 45:40.43 at age 48. But he spent a ton of energy collaring the winners of the other age groups and sharing their stories.

Like all good biographers, Bruce put Olga in context. He spoke to dozens of masters athletes, basically asking: “Why do you do this?”

Some of our greatest stars appear in the book, often several times, including fellow Canadians Earl Fee, Ed Whitlock “who can make a contending claim to be the best masters athlete in the world” and Olga’s W75 pal Christa Bortignon.

Others with cameos include the late M100 thrower Alfred Proksch and W100 legend Ruth Frith, M95ers Ralph Maxwell and Orville Rogers, and a slew of other Americans, such as Phil Raschker, Jeanne Daprano, Nolan Shaheed, Gary Stenlund and Henry Rono (as an example of an ex-elite who never quite got the courage to show at worlds.)

Filmmaker Jan Tenhaven interviews M100 Alfred Proksch at 2009 Lahti worlds (and tells Bruce the backstory.)

Heck, even I’m in the book (quoted three or four times). But Bruce didn’t mention my sprint prowess. That can wait for the next printing.

The second edition also might correct errors of the first. Bruce knows that five-year age groups don’t end with 0 or 5. But we see stuff like “85-90 age group” on the same page he refers to “Men’s 85-89.” (And on page 182: “Men’s 45-50” while “Men’s 55-59.” Oy.)

Other flubs:

    • “Olga’s 100-meter dash final at the world indoor championships.” (It’s 60, silly.)

    • “Therapeutic exemption use note.” (Repeat after me: TUE.)

    • “Cal State Sacramento, home of the 2011 World Masters Athletics Championships, the biggest masters track-and-field meet ever staged.” (Many others drew more, led by the 14,000 — including marathoners — at 1993 worlds in Miyazaki, Japan.)

    • “Nobody over age 75 does the flop.” (Even Fosbury would chuckle at this.)

    • “There’s a reason no one else in the world her age still high-jumps and long jumps.” (Don’t tell American Margaret Hinton or Britain’s Mary Wixey.)

But enough negativity. Olga would forbid it.

Bruce studied an Encyclopedia Brittanica’s worth of books and technical papers in the course of his four years of Olga studies and expertly weaves in the takeaways. Olga illustrates much of what he’s learned, and Bruce says (in his ever-clever way): “I see Olga in every scrap of well-being research the way some spiritual pilgrims see God in plates of spaghetti.”

Olga hugs a lot, and her giving nature boosts her longevity, the book suggests.

Bruce takes pains to show that we needn’t aspire to Freaks of Nature status, however.

“Can I be like Olga?” he writes. “The short answer is probably not. But here’s the good news: Can you all of us be more like Olga? For sure.”

He writes in a final chapter:

“A few [Olga] habits emerged that demand fuller attention. Think of them as hard-won rules from the masters that promote vitality, longevity and happiness. Here they are: Keep moving. Create routines (but sometimes break them). Be opportunistic. Be a mensch. Believe in something. Lighten up. Cultivate a sense of progress. Don’t do it if you don’t love it. Begin now.”

Olga’s habits include getting up in the middle of the night to roll over a wine bottle, doing Japanese puzzles to keep her mind sharp and perfecting her 1930s high jump technique.

Olga’s history may be as impressive as her 26 world records. She left her drunkard husband, John Kotelko, in 1953 after he put a blade to her throat. She had an 8-year-old girl and one in the oven.

“As far as I knew, I was the first single mom in the history of the world,” she tells Bruce.

Vancouver author Bruce Grierson did a George Plimpton turn in the book — inspired by Olga to run the 10K at Sacramento worlds in 2011.

Also courageous was Bruce Grierson himself — telling of his badminton champ father dying of leukemia in his mid 60s and confessing: “Maybe it’s because I still miss him so much that I see him in [Olga]. She continues the story that he began.”

Since his paternal grandparents died at 101 and 97, Bruce thinks his dad “should be alive today and, it’s easy to imagine, almost as robust as Olga.”

The book ends on an ambiguous note. Bruce reveals Olga has osteoporosis (but doctor tells her: “Don’t let anybody tell you not to do [masters track].” Olga is found to have a cancerous tumor of unknown age in her right lung (but “Honestly, I’m not letting it worry me,” she says). Olga opts to do nothing.

And then she goes off to Porto Alegre and wins nine gold medals.

“What Makes Olga Run?” is small in size — like 5-foot Olga herself. At 5 3/4 inches by 8 1/2 inches and 242 pages (including index and bibliography), it’s not time-consuming.

But expect something big to happen when the world gets hold of “Olga” and meets Olga. Ken Cooper, make room for Bruce Grierson. World, start learning the Western roll.

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January 14, 2014

11 Responses

  1. Ken Stone - January 14, 2014

    Bruce sent me a nice note and answered my question on Olga’s health, saying: ” Olga’s cancer — if that’s indeed what it is — is not growing. Last they saw the doctors, a month or so ago, they sort of shrugged and said, “Come see us in six months.” Olga’s strategy of doing nothing and staying positive seems to be powerful medicine, at least for now. She’s not letting it worry her, anyway. Barrelling through, indeed: Kamloops next month and Budapest in March, where she’ll jump to the W 95-99 category.

  2. al cestero - January 14, 2014

    olga is amazing proof of how constantly looking towards the next achievement halts getting old…she has no time for thinking about what she used to be, but only for what she will be..god bless her! (and to all of our masters athletes a great and healthy 2014)

  3. Ken Stone - January 17, 2014

    Friday’s “Today” show didn’t have an Olga segment. It was bumped by something else. But I hear it’s been rescheduled for Monday morning. Cross your fingers!

  4. Karla Del Grande - January 17, 2014

    Here’s a delightful, informative, inspiring interview with Olga and Bruce Grierson on CBC Radio (Canada). I hope her American fans can hear this as well as those in Canada.

  5. Ken Stone - January 19, 2014

    I listened to 19-minute CBC Podcast cited by Karla:

    Some things I learned:

    —Olga doesn’t watch much TV, but when she does, it’s “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune,” and she has her legs raised 45 degrees while viewing.

    —Olga boasts a 127 average in bowling.

    —Olga hopes to be competing at 100.

    —Olga’s closing advice: “Laugh at yourself. Be optimistic. Just enjoy life . . . and be good to yourself.”

  6. Ken Stone - January 25, 2014

    WBUR Boston’s story on Olga went viral on NPR as well:

  7. Ken Stone - January 31, 2014

    Olga has a Facebook fan page!

  8. Michal Kapral - February 4, 2014

    Thanks for the insightful review, Ken. I remember reporting on Olga’s exploits in Canadian Running magazine when she turned 90, and being baffled as to why she wasn’t getting more press. I’m happy to see that Bruce’s book is finally doing her story justice.

  9. Peter Stream - February 8, 2014

    Do you know where I can get a copy of the film, Autumn Gold? I’ve only been able to see clips of it and award presentations to Olga. Your book of Olga is fabulous. It is jam packed with research, studies and testimonies that inspire.

  10. Ken Stone - February 8, 2014

    Peter, the director (Jan Tenhaven) lists Amazon as a place to buy DVD:

  11. Ken Stone - February 13, 2014

    Here’s a 16-page sample of the book:

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