She cut her pool time in half as she aged without sacrificing power. Though her body may have been weaker in absolute terms, she became much more efficient at turning strength into propulsion.
More advanced training methods can make older athletes look good, to be sure. But Ms. Torres had another advantage that can accrue to veteran athletes: Money from sponsorships and motivational-speaking gigs that could pay for a vast team that included both upper-body and lower-body trainers, two masseurs, a chiropractic neurologist, a naturopath and a good old-fashioned aquatic coach. The cosseting of the aging elite body does not come cheap, but the huge support system can earn its keep in sports that define victory in milliseconds.
Torres’s ascent to stardom in her 40s was a powerful reminder of the commercial value age can bring to sports. “She’s the athlete as a brand,” Mr. Coakley says. “Sponsors are more willing to back older athletes because they can sell products to an older market searching for role models and inspiration in what is very much a youth-oriented popular culture.” The athlete still has to perform in order to retain that position of influence (even if, like Lance Armstrong, they might gear down from Tour de France to Ironman triathlon). But the money that flows in supplies a competitive advantage that partly offsets the effects of aging.
Still, Ms. Torres is something of an outlier: She gets all that money and attention because there is no one quite like her. In the more typical culture of Olympic-level performers, the funding is not far above the subsistence level, so athletes have to look for other reasons to keep competing and stay competitive as they age in their career.
Canadian marathoner Reid Coolsaet will be 33 when he runs in London, which isn’t untypical for his event. “You see a lot of older marathoners,” he says. “It takes a lot of time to build up the training level the marathon requires. At the same time, you don’t need the high-end speed that tends to go away as you get older.”
The marathon favours older runners to that extent – even recreational marathoners recognize that building up endurance is something you can do well into later life. But when Mr. Coolsaet talks about the appeal of the 42.195-kilometre discipline, he is more likely to describe it with a newcomer’s enthusiasm.
“In most sports, you do the same event for year after year and your motivation starts to wane. But I was a 5K and 10K runner until 2007, I got injured in 2008, and didn’t start the marathon until 2009. So, for me, it’s like a rejuvenation. It got me excited again, doing a whole new event, and if you’re not excited, you can’t do it.”
Even elite athletes who make a career out of their sport need to feel inspired by what they do if they are going to stick around for years. “It’s a great challenge, a great endeavour and a great adventure,” Mr. Whitfield says, summing up the triathlete’s itinerant life.
But the Olympics are a cruel reminder of time’s unstoppable advances – is this the end, or can you keep it going?
“I’ve thought about it a lot, especially this year,” Mr. Coolsaet says. “But it’s not good mentally to put the Olympics on the pedestal and think about where you’ll be four years from now. There are still the world championships between now and then, and I’m really motivated by the desire to run a fast time in the marathon. After 2013, I may take it year by year. But the Pan-Am Games are enticing in 2015 because they’re happening here [in Toronto]. And if you get to 2015, what’s one more year?”
An athlete’s calculations never stop. Mr. Coolsaet has studied other distance runners and has seen many runners go downhill quickly at his age and a few go strong into their late 30s. But he is still excited. He feels optimistic because his times have been getting faster as he has matured in his sport and he is certain he has got an even faster time remaining in his body. Only time will tell.
John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.