4 Things I Learned From Masters Athletes – Alex Rotas, Photographer

How to be healthy and happy way beyond 50! 4 things I learned from photographing Masters Athletes

Alex Rotas Healthy Happy 50

Alex Rotas Masters Athletes Photographer

How to be healthy and happy way beyond 50! 4 things I learned from photographing Masters Athletes

It is a joy to welcome Alex Rotas to HealthyHappy50. Alex was recently nominated for a Women’s Sports Trust #BeAGameChanger Awards for her amazing photography of Masters Athletes.

She kindly agreed to tell us how she started this new career in her 60s and what lessons these athletes can teach us.

Hello Alex! Please tell us about your photography:

I take photographs of sporty women (and men) in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, who take their sport pretty seriously. More specifically, I’ve primarily taken pictures of track and field athletes aged over 50 through to their 90s. I’m now branching out to other sports too.

What do you mean by ‘take their sport seriously’?

By ‘seriously’, I mean that they train for and then compete in national and international events. What I certainly don’t mean by ‘seriously’ is any lack of joy. Oh my goodness, on the contrary.

I’ve discovered the world of competitive masters’ sports and what an inspiring, empowering, celebratory and life-enhancing world it is too!

Dorothy Mclennan HealthyHappy50

Dorothy Mclennan, Ireland, born 1935 celebrates during the heptathlon event, 75 – 79 year old age group, at the European Veterans Athletics Championships . Izmir, Turkey, 2014

How do people normally react when you tell them what you do?

When people ask me what I do and I tell them that I take photos of ‘older competitive athletes’ and then when I tell them how old I mean by older, they usually say something to the effect of “hmmm, that’s erm, rather niche.”

And it is niche, because a) there’s no immediate money in it and b) no one knows about it. And the two are interlinked, of course.

Other than the participants and their families, few people do know that there are major international events for masters’ sportsmen and women. The media don’t promote them so public awareness is low – and it’s a vicious circle.

Can you tell us more about the types of events open to Masters Athletes?

Some are ‘Games’, meaning that, like the Olympic Games, a multitude of different sports will be having championship events at the same time in the same city.

Others are the major events unique to the individual sports themselves.

So, for example, coming up in October 2016 are the World Masters Athletics Championships in Perth, Australia, for track and field athletes only http://www.perth2016.com/ .

In April 2017 the World Masters Games will be taking place in Auckland, New Zealand, for 28 sports and 45 disciplines http://www.worldmastersgames2017.co.nz/the-games/about-the-games/

Sue Yeomans HealthyHappy50

Sue Yeomans, Great Britain, born 1953, on her way to world championship status in the pole vault event, 60 – 64 year old age group, in the World Masters Athletics Championships, Lyon, France 2015 

Have you always been sporty yourself?

I’ve always been sporty but I’ve never worked in sport. I’ve played competitive tennis on and off all my life. I kept a rudimentary level of fitness going through the family years when that was difficult. I did early morning swims, squash and had a foray into judo, until I broke my ankle in a tussle. I was a grudging participant in half-hearted, painful and short runs.

I’m getting into my stride (oops!) with the running now I’m in my mid 60s, but that’s another story.

Alex Rotas HealthyHappy50

Alex playing tennis in Bristol

How did you become interested in sports photography?

Through my fifties I was working as an academic in the field of visual culture. This meant I was looking at and thinking about a lot of visual images.

My last bit of research really stemmed from my love of tennis when I found myself looking at the differences between the websites of elite male and female tennis players. That started after I did a Google search in an idle moment and was rather surprised by what showed up.

As I was approaching 60 I started wondering about what sorts of images were in circulation that showed older sportsmen and women. So I did another Google search. And guess what I found? Nothing!

There were no images at all to be seen, let alone analysed. I was puzzled as I knew there were plenty of folk playing tennis right through to their 80s. I had come across much older competitive swimmers too, so I knew they existed.

But where were the images that documented their presence?

What did you find?

What I did find, having punched in the words ‘old’ and ‘women’ and ‘men’ (albeit with other words in between) – and I bet you can guess what’s coming next – was a multitude of the most depressing images you could imagine. “Old-people-slumped-on-their-chairs-round-a-care-home-telly” was a very common theme. Think of the ‘elderly people crossing’ sign that’s so familiar on UK roads and you’ll be close to the dominating sentiment.

The overall impression was one that would terrify and depress anyone on the cusp of ‘ageing’ or indeed anyone facing caring for their parents as they ‘age’. The jury’s out of course as to when what we mean by ‘ageing’ starts, and anyway, what do we mean when we use the word? But that’s another issue! Apart from that, it was just plain wrong.

These images may have been a part of what was going on, but they were not the whole story. Not even half the story. All those active, older sporty people I knew, where were they?

Hildegund Buerkle HealthyHappy50

Hildegund Buerkle, Germany, born 1934, 100m champion and European record holder, 80 – 84 year old age group, in the European Veterans Athletics Championships, Izmir, Turkey, 2014

Was this the point at which you decided you wanted photos of these active, older sporty people and share them?

Yes. This was the moment when I could feel a new project opening up for me. I was about to retire from academic work. Although I’d had plenty of experience looking at visual images, I’d never actually created any myself.

But I found myself fired up by the idea of documenting some of the older sportsmen and women I knew to be out there. I wanted to offset all this horrible negative imagery with something a whole lot more positive.

Christa Bortignon, HealthyHappy50

Christa Bortignon, Canada, born 1937, multiple world champion and masters ‘Athlete of the Year 2013’, in flight during the triple jump event, 75 – 79 year old age group, at the World Masters Games, Turin, Italy, 2013

You say you were about to retire from academics. Were you looking for a project to follow on?

One of the ways I’ve always lived my life, and I’m not recommending it, it’s just the way it’s been for me, is I seem to have shifted into a new field more or less every decade. I like being a beginner, it seems. I love learning new stuff. The downside is of course I’ve never become an expert in anything, because somehow just as I get a little bit good at something, I find myself wandering happily off in a related, but rather different, direction.

So turning 60 saw you becoming a photographer?

Yes. As I turned 60, after being a latecomer in the world of academia through my 50s, it seemed I was about to become a photographer. There were minor problems:

  • I didn’t have a camera,
  • I knew nothing about photography, and
  • I didn’t know how or where I was going to set about taking the kinds of photographs I vaguely knew I wanted to be taking.

But hey. This is just the sort of situation I love. My thoughts were basically, bring it on!

How did you overcome these ‘minor problems’?

So I Googled ‘photography tutor, Bristol’ (yes, Google is truly my friend) and I lucked out. Bingo, first click. A young woman called Rachel Sokal http://www.rachelsokal.com/ seemed totally unfazed by my combination of ignorance and crazy goals and she took me on. Our first lesson was in a camera shop, just getting some basic kit. She was younger than the students I’d been teaching a few months back, but she was clever, smart, professional and super-knowledgeable. She was also great company!

It sounds like it was meant to be! Finding a mentor and teacher with your first click on Google!

Yes, and as a small aside at this juncture, can I slip in a word recommending this sort of ‘reverse mentoring’ as we get older? You get a younger mind-set thrown I too, as well as all the learning. Anyway, lovely Rachel soon worked out how to shut me up when I’d try to make conversation rather than confront learning some of the tricky stuff.

Oh yes, I love learning, but of course only things I like doing and thinking about (eg when it comes to photography, composition), and not the nitty-gritty I need to know but find boring/difficult (eg, the techie stuff). So, we were off!

Once you mastered the photography, what did you do next?

Exactly. Good question. Off where?

At this stage I too knew nothing of the big Masters sporting events that were open to older sportsmen and women. Luckily a friend of a friend did and I learned about the Masters Games that were due to take place in Italy the following September (2011).

Back to Google and I discovered they were taking place in Lignano on the Adriatic coast and that there was a tennis event as well as a possibility to join the ‘media’.

I set about getting myself a place in both.

Alex Rotas HealthyHappy50

Alex courtside in Lignano, Italy, for the European Masters Games, 2011

Becoming a member of the ‘media’ sounds daunting. How did you go about that?

Entering the tennis tournament was the easy bit (well, I say easy, but the bureaucracy all these events seem to have makes every entry form a whole-day, crying-into-your-tea kind of activity in itself).

But how was I going to get myself a press pass? I knew I’d need that in order to be able to access the sports arenas and also in order to have some sort of official permission to use and publish whatever photographs I managed to get. This is where it helped that the Games weren’t on anyone’s radar. The press wasn’t exactly queuing up to get ring-side.

Still, I did have to answer a few questions.

  • Was I member of the press association? Er, no.
  • Had I done this before? Nope.
  • Any exhibitions from past events? Nada.

And then I remembered I was a member of an academic organisation with impressive initials, the IAMCR (The International Association for Media & Communications Research http://iamcr.org/). I was just a paid-up member, nothing grand, but with nothing to lose, I lobbed these ‘credentials’ in the direction of the organisers, and I was in.

Is it called the gift of the gab? Or just being plain cheeky? Either way, it worked.

So you have a press pass! How did you decide which sports to focus on at your first Masters event?

And how is it that of all the sports I could have ended up photographing, the one I’ve spent most of my time alongside is athletics, aka track and field? Pure serendipity, that’s how.

Intriguing – please tell us more!

It’s Day 1 at Lignano, and the European Masters Games, September 2011. I’m at a bus stop in the heat waiting for a shuttle to take me to the registration centre. I don’t know what the registration centre is or looks like and I’ve been waiting forever and the bus hasn’t come.

In about two hours’ time I’m scheduled to be on court playing my first tennis match. I don’t know where the tennis club is either except it’s nowhere near the registration centre. Anyway, I need to register first. I’m hot, bewildered and a little bit anxious. Frantic actually.

Then to my relief I hear English voices. Well, English words being spoken with a strong Irish accent. I turn to find two older women, two peas in a pod really, looking impossibly alike, both wearing the shortest denim shorts I’d ever seen, chattering and laughing together as they approached the bus stop.

I didn’t know it but I’d met ‘the Irish twins’, both in their mid-70s and legends on the international track and field circuit. Dorothy McLennan was a world class pole-vaulter (yep, I did say that about a 76 year old woman) and her twin, Sheila Champion (isn’t that a great name for a sports woman?) was a world class javelin thrower.

The Irish Twins HealthyHappy50

‘The Irish Twins’

They cast one look at me anxiously standing at the bus stop, laughed hilariously and took me under their wing. Yes, they could take me to the registration centre, yes, they could tell me what I needed to do and yes, as it transpired, they could later on turn up at the tennis club shouting ‘Come on GB!’ as I played my first match (that was a first for me).

And yes, the next day we could meet up again and they could introduce me to the world of track and field athletics, take me to the stadium, push me through the gate for competitors and press only, and open the way for me to be hooked on a sport that was, until this moment, totally unknown to me.

And yes too, through this chance encounter at a bus stop, very special and enduring new friendships was born.

So having met The Irish Twins purely by coincidence, everything fell into place?

Yes, more or less. I’ve stayed hooked on track and field and become a regular at the big national and international events. I get my press passes now because I’ve got credentials from past events; phew. I’ve learned some of the rules so I am no longer yelled at by irate officials, as I wander potentially in the path of flying discuses (or indeed athletes).

I’ve learned the stories behind the faces I’ve photographed and made unexpected new friendships. I’ve become not only a photographer, but a groupie, a fan.

Marianna Maier, HealthyHappy50

Marianne Maier, Austria, born 1942, shows what a 73 year old world championship athlete looks like when she’s doing the high jump at the World Masters Athletics Championships, Lyon, France 2015

You’ve spent 5 years now photographing these inspiring athletes. Can you tell us what lessons you have learned?

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about these apparently very healthy, happy people, all well over 50:

a) Health isn’t just a physical thing – it’s matter of the mind:

I discovered that these remarkable athletes I watch and document are actually prone to the same strokes, heart attacks, knee and hip replacements as the rest of us. They just battle through them, as one stroke survivor told me, through “sheer bloody-mindedness.”

Being healthy in other words, isn’t just a physical thing; it’s a matter of mind. They compromise. Sheila Champion used to be a walk racer. But after three quite serious strokes, including the last where she had to learn literally to walk again, she limits herself to throwing events.

b) Many of the record breaking athletes started later in life. They haven’t been life-long competitors:

I’ve learned that a large number of these elite athletes, the ones who make and break records through their 70s, 80s and 90s haven’t been life-long competitors. Many women have had breaks, long breaks.

Canada’s late, great Olga Kotelko, who was still making world records two years ago when she turned 96, only took up athletics when she was 77 and found herself kicked off her soft-ball team for being “too old.”

Olga Kotelko HealthyHappy50

Olga Kotelko, Canada, 1919 – 2014, in radiant form at the World Masters Indoor Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, 2014, where she entered 9 events in the 95 – 99 old age group, won gold medals in them all and created new world records in 7 of them

c) Many of the women have had breaks, long breaks:

Another Canadian athlete and multiple world record holder, Christa Bortignon, also took 50 years out. She had competed in track and field when she was in college but then she stopped to have a career and bring up her family. She returned to the track in her early 70s and a couple of years later was breaking world records in her age group and making new ones of her own.

Great Britain’s Anne Martin competed as a teenager but then had a 40 year break and only “rejigged as an athlete”, as she told me, in her 60s when her daughter entered her in the London marathon.

Anne Martin HealthyHappy50

Anne Martin, Great Britain, born 1936, leaping to first place in the triple jump event, 75 – 79 year old age group, at the British Open Masters Track and Field Championships, Birmingham, UK in 2013

d) They have fun! They are really happy as well as ‘healthy’! You bet your life they do and they are:

These national and international events are where they :

  • meet up with their peers who are now their friends
  • exchange stories about their training and about their lives
  • compare their muscles and their wrinkles (I’ve seen them do both!)
  • laugh at the sheer joy of being alive and fit enough to run and jump and throw
  • and if they win, they get to climb onto the medals rostrum and hear their national anthem played for something they have achieved in their eighth, ninth and tenth decades

So those of us in our 50s just returning to sport or starting for the first time, might  have some incredible experiences ahead of us?

Yes, absolutely dear healthy, happy young 50 year old friends, you may well have another five decades of healthy happiness ahead of you.

Think about it. Get training. And celebrate!

Hilja Bakhoff, Austra Reinberga, Ilsa Pleuger HealthyHappy50

Hilja Bakhoff, Estonia, born 1926 (centre, gold), Austra Reinberga, Latvia, born 1927 (left, silver) and Ilse Pleuger, Germany, born 1923, (right, bronze) on the medals rostrum at the European Veteran Athletics Championship, Zittau, Germany, 2012, for the medals ceremony after the discus competition, 85 – 89 year old age group

Thank you so much for sharing your incredible story with us Alex! It is really inspiring to think a woman just starting or rediscovering sport in her 50s can have so many wonderful experiences ahead. 

Jo x

Do you have a story to share? We’d love to hear from you! Please get in touch on Twitter or Instagram @healthyhappy50 or email me healthyhappyfifty@yahoo.com

 

Danish athlete Inge Faldager, left, born 1948, compares her muscles with fellow athlete Monika Hedderich from Germany, born 1947, in a break from the discus throwing event, 65-69 year old age group, at the European Veterans Athletics Championships in Izmir, Turkey, 2014

Danish athlete Inge Faldager, left, born 1948, compares her muscles with fellow athlete Monika Hedderich from Germany, born 1947, in a break from the discus throwing event, 65-69 year old age group, at the European Veterans Athletics Championships in Izmir, Turkey, 2014

Keep in touch with Alex! 

Alex Rotas challenges notions of ageing by telling stories about active older people through photography, speaking and writing (and getting older herself).

She can be found at www.alexrotasphotography.co.uk, on Facebook at Alex Rotas Photography and on Twitter: @alexrotas

Finalist for the Women’s Sport Trust 2016 #BeAGameChanger award, Imagery category. Author of Growing Old Competitively, Photographs of Masters Athletes, 2014.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
Mary Oliver.

To find out more about the Women’s Sport Trust follow them on Twitter @WomenSportTrust

All photos courtesy of Alex Rotas

2 Comments

  1. 4th August 2016 / 9:04 pm

    I love this!! Inspirational on so many levels, thank you for sharing this Jo xx

    • 5th August 2016 / 5:22 am

      Thank you so much Jean! I’m so thrilled you enjoyed Alex’s story & wonderful pictures. The Masters Athletes are truly amazing aren’t they? Thank you, Jo 🙂

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