IMG_2748When I was a young swimmer, back when humans and Neanderthals were chucking stones at each other in a battle for hominid supremacy, everyone knew that swimmers peaked at age 17.  That’s how old Janet Evans was when she won three gold medals in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.  That’s how old I was when I swam the fastest I would ever swim my favorite event, the 100 yd. butterfly. Janet and I, we each hung on for a bit longer – her going to another two Olympics, me becoming a big fish in a small swimming program where anyone who could finish 100 yards of butterfly without getting out for a drink was considered a star.

Later this month, I turn 44. Forty-four is an unexpected number at the end of that last sentence. It’s just so…large. When I was swimming my fastest 100 butterfly, I couldn’t imagine life past graduation. 44 and 84 were pretty much the same age, located at that smudgy far end of the human lifespan.

Still, when people tell me that I look younger than my age, I bristle. “Oh no,” they say, “you can’t be that old.” Or, “No waaaaay you’re in your forties!”   They’re trying to reassure me that I’m not this awful thing, which is, to be anything older than 28.

Given our culture’s obsession with youth, it’s hardly surprising that people are as quick to say stupid shit about age as they are about weight. You look so young! is second only to You’ve lost weight! in the list of Nicest Things You Can Say About Someone.

Well, fuck that.

I have all sorts of beef with the Crossfit Games (as distinct from Crossfit the general exercise program, which I have a whole different side of beef with, but that’s for another post) and the general silliness of competitive exercising, but there is one unambiguously good thing that has come out of making a sporting event out of Crossfit. The Games have radically changed our beliefs about what people over 40 are physically capable of doing. More specifically, it has shown that regular, everyday people are able to get stronger and learn new skills way past the previously-believed-to-be-the-physical-peak age of 17.

Kim Holway, for example, can clean and jerk 180 pounds. If you’re unfamiliar with the clean and jerk, it’s an aesthetically beautiful, physiologically complicated movement where you heft a barbell up from the ground to your shoulders, then heave it up over your head. 185 pounds is a whole lot of weight. Kim is 46 years old, and if she’s anything like the typical Crossfit masters competitor, she first learned how to clean & jerk sometime in the last few years.

Jacinto Bonilla, age 74, has a 325 pound deadlift. That’s fifty pounds more than the deadlift that I managed to get three inches off the ground last week before some part of my erector spinae gave out and I had to hobble home for an advil and tall glass of scotch.  The dude is 74. Seventy. Four.

I could go on listing individuals age 40+ who have really showed out in competitive crossfitting, but while inspiring, these individual standouts are not the most interesting thing about what we’re learning about not-young people and physical pursuits.  What’s most interesting is this: calculating the rates of improvement from the last three years of Crossfit Games results, it seems to matter not one whit how old people are when they get to work improving or learning a physical skill. The average improvements by the older age groups matched those of the under 40 athletes, whether it was heavy lifts or gymnastics skills.

Put another way, if a physical skill is given a sufficient amount of focused attention, the 65 year old gets better at it at about the same rate a 25 year old gets better at it.

Now that’s kind of awesome. It puts the lie to my 17-year old self’s belief that everything would be downhill from then, physically speaking.  My 17-year old self was right in the sense that I never swam the 100 butterfly any faster, but completely wrong about all the rest of it. I am far stronger, faster (in everything except the 100 butterfly), and more coordinated now at almost 44 than I was when I was 17. I can, for example, walk across the parking lot without tripping, something that had been a real challenge for my 17-year old swimmer-with-wobbly-ankles self.

When we persist in the belief that it’s only the teenagers and twentysomethings who can “get good” at a new sport or physical pursuit, we turn 30 and suddenly don’t bother to push into new physical endeavors.  We fall into passivity, clicking through interweb links in search of that perfect funny cat gif. It feels like a treat to sink into the couch with a bowl of chips and just relaaaaaaax into a happy little biomass absorbing all this talent and money that’s been invested in producing award winning TV shows to entertain you.  Click. Munch. Click. Scroll. Click. Snooze. That’s Tuesday night.

And that’s a shame, because your body would be ecstatic to learn something new. The snatch. The clean & jerk. Climbing a rope. Doing a handstand. Juggling. The river dance. Any damn thing. This applies whether you’re 25 or 45 or 65.

SO WHY ARE YOU PASSIVELY SITTING THERE READING THIS?! Go do some pushups, and throw in a couple of burpees with a knee tuck. And then tomorrow morning, meet us at our usual spot to the north of the Inman Park MARTA station at 10:00. We’ll learn some new things together.

(Janet Evans, BTW, just started competing again, as a 42 year old masters swimmer. If Diana Nyad can swim from Cuba to the US at the age of 64, what’s 42 anyway?)