Jo Pavey had expected to retire even before the London Olympics four years ago. Instead, the 42-year-old is preparing for her fifth Olympic Games.
“When London 2012 was announced in 2005, I thought I’d be retired by then and wouldn’t even be able to compete at a home games so competing at the Olympics after that is just surreal,” she told The Telegraph.
Pavey will become the first British track athlete to accomplish that feat, but she is also yet another athlete challenging our assumptions of how old is too old to compete at the highest level and what can be achieved as we age.
Pavey was ready to concede defeat and give up on her dream of being selected for this year’s games as recently as June after she finished well below the required pace at the Olympic trials. But was able to turn it around with her impressive performance at this year’s European Championships. Pavey beat 24-year-old Kate Avery to secure her spot in the 10,000 meters, with a season’s best of 31 minutes and 34 seconds.
In 2014, she dominated the European Championships—11 months after giving birth to her daughter. The win landed Pavey in the record books as the oldest woman to win gold.
Pavey is not the only athlete defying ageist assumptions during the upcoming Olympic Games. The 41-year-old gymnast Oksana Chusovitina will be competing in her seventh Olympic Games at Rio this summer. She will be the oldest Olympic female gymnast in history.
Chusovitina made her debut in 1992 where she helped her team win gold. In her career so far, she has represented the Soviet Union, Unified Team (the name given to the former USSR in 1992), and Germany. She’ll be playing for Uzbekistan this year.
Chusovitina career, which has spanned over two decades, is unprecedented in gymnastics. By comparison, 22-year-old Aly Raisman, the US women’s gymnastics team captain, has been dubbed the “grandma” of her Olympic team.
Raisman quickly loses her “grandma” status when looking at the whole of the US Olympics team. Meb Keflezighi, 40, will compete in his fourth Olympics this year. “It’s borderline superhuman,” running historian Ryan Lamppa told the San Diego Union Tribune. “It’s so atypical for athletes to stay motivated, maintain the drive, enjoy the training, show up on race day, and deliver.”
Keflezighi, who is the oldest US Olympic men’s marathon runner, won silver in the 2004 Athens Olympics, and has won both the New York and Boston marathon. He will be joined by another US veteran Olympian—41-year-old Bernard Lagat, who will be competing in his fourth Olympic Games. Lagat will be the oldest US athlete to compete in a running event at Rio and the second oldest US track-and-field competitor ever.
Other veteran Olympians in Rio include 40-year-old Prakash Nanjappa, India’s oldest debutant marksman; 61-year-old dressage rider Mary Hanna, who will become Australia’s oldest Olympian; and 35-year-old Anthony Ervin, who is the oldest American male swimmer to qualify for an individual event since 1904.
Kanak Jha is making history, too, but for the opposite reason. The 16-year-old American is the first athlete from the US born in the 2000s to qualify (paywall) for an Olympics. Only time will tell how many more summer games he’ll end up qualifying for.