Q&A with Orville Rogers on overcoming stroke, keeping motivation

Orville Rogers, likely the oldest Athlete of the Year in USATF history, is a model for overcoming adversity. He suffered a stroke in 2011 but mowed down world records in 2013. He had a heart full of blocked arteries and began running at 50. He didn’t run in high school — back in the mid-1930s in Sulphur, Oklahoma. “No track program at our high school,” Orville wrote in response to a Q&A. “I did play football and lettered two years (before attending Oklahoma University). I think I owe my athletic success in later life to my childhood swimming. I and several friends would play tag in and around the pool, running and swimming for what might have been hours on end. My last physical at the Cooper clinic showed that my (lung) vital capacity was 45% above predicted for a man my age and weight.” Orville, who turned 96 in late November, adds: “I must tell you that Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the author of ‘Aerobics,’ is my personal doctor, and has ‘kept me going’ for more than 40 years.”

Orville was well-supported at 2013 masters nationals in windy Olathe, Kansas.

Here’s my email Q&A with awesome Orville:

Masterstrack.com: Until this season’s USATF award, what was your greatest athletic honor?

Orville Rogers: Probably 2008, set two world records (mile & 800) at Boston indoor and was USATF Athlete of the Month.

You hold eight world records, according to WMA records, and probably others unofficially. Of all your performances this year, which are you most proud of?

Please allow me to change the year to 2008, when I broke the mile record by almost a minute and half.

You hold records from 200 meters to 3,000 meters. What is your favorite distance and why?

Orville worked for each.

Orville worked for each.

I (somewhat with a tad of humor) often say that the 200 indoor and the 400 outdoor (one lap each) are favorites. You start out fast, turn left and hurry home!

Are you completely recovered from your 2011 stroke? How did you make such a great recovery?

Only a small residue of loss of feeling in left thumb and forefinger. l initially had a complete loss of motion in left hand and left foot, and a small loss in left hip. So I had to wonder at that time if I could ever walk again, much less run. When I entered rehab, I asked for a very aggressive program and I worked at it with a vengeance. I think I surprised them.

Many older athletes lose motivation because of a lack of age-group rivals. How do you stay motivated?

I was almost at that point when I had no competition locally. Approaching 90, I looked up the records and thought “Hey, maybe I can do that.” I had a little competition the last few years, but none after turning 95. So I am aiming for the 100 years old in another four years. My belief is that you must have some goals, something to live for, to keep you living good.

As a career professional pilot, you traveled widely. How far do you travel now to meets? Will you attend the Budapest indoor worlds in 2014 or Lyon outdoor worlds in 2015?

I have made most of the U.S. indoor and outdoor meets the last five years, and went to Kamloops, Canada, a few years ago. I might consider other world meets in the future. (I have a lot of frequent flyer miles).

Can you improve your M95 records, or will you bide your time to tackle M100?

I will take a close look at both the indoor and outdoor record times and my fitness to try the meets this year, and then probably rest up for the 100-years-old events.

Many of us would be lucky to compete after 70 or 80. What does competition after 90 feel like?

I enjoy it. There is a nice feeling about the term “world champion,” even though if you draw the parameters tight enough almost anyone could be a world champion at something.(tiddelywinks?) Still, it has a nice ring to it—world champion!!

Do you ever get depressed by declining performance over time? Or do you maintain hope you can regain speed from the early 90s or late 80s?

No depression, though a bit of disappointment. I want to slow down as slowly as possible.

How can USATF and WMA do a better job of recruiting more athletes in the upper age groups?

Encourage runners not to think of themselves as elitists, but to encourage others to realize that even though most cannot excel, they can obtain the benefits of exercise through training for and participating in local and national competitions. It is well-documented that exercise can and does provide increased longevity and well-being. I have personal knowledge of many scientific studies; every one of them show increased longevity, some with a death rate of only 50% of those who do not exercise. This is stupendous.

Tell me about your support system — coaches, trainers, massage therapists and family supporters.

I have used trainers to help me with the mechanics of running, have had no coaches. It is impossible to find anyone who has worked with 95-year-olds. The Canadian runner, Earl Fee, has a book that is helpful, but he is about 10 years younger I think.

At the U.S. indoor at Landover, MD, this year I had 15 family members in the stands yelling for me, and they had a large banner that read “Run Orville Run.” The people in the stands got in the act too, encouraging me. (I was usually the last runner to finish — no competitors in my age group — although I did beat a couple of runners in the 90-94 age group that was combined with 95-99.)

I must tell you that Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the author of ‘Aerobics,’ is my personal doctor, and has ‘kept me going’ for more than 40 years. He found my heart problem in 1993 when on his treadmill he noticed an inverted T wave. Subsequent investigation revealed six coronary arteries that were 80-95% blocked*. (I had no previous symptoms.) All six were bypassed and still are open nearly 21 years later. It is also worth noting that I started running at age 50 after reading his book.

Anything else you’d like to say about your season or masters track experience?

I must say also, that I am motivated, as a Christian, to compete well, to show that we can compete with the general population groups.

*(It was decided that my cholesterol buildup in heart arteries was due to my ratio, which was 5.5 to 1, as my total had been in a good (55) range for many years.)

Iconic image of Orville setting one of several indoor WRs in Landover, Maryland.

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December 10, 2013

2 Responses

  1. wayne bennett - December 10, 2013

    I have had a long relationship with Orville (at least ten years) thru the Dallas Masters Track and Field Club and have really encouraged him over this time. Glad to be a part of his circle of friends and try to keep a close watch on him at meets where both of us are present. Great Man!!!

  2. Lindy Raney - December 11, 2013

    Amazing Orville. Your determination to come back after the stroke is an inspiring story.

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