The shelf life of a professional athlete is generally very short. To be able to compete at such an elite level for any length of time at all requires an extraordinary combination of genetic gifts and an iron work ethic. To be able to sustain that level of performance into one’s late 30s or 40s — generally, the time when most athletes are considered “past their prime” — is even more rare and unusual.
And yet, 2021 has shaped up to be an extremely unusual year in the sports world. Not only have sporting events been ravaged by the coronavirus lockdowns, but now, as the first signs of recovery and a return to normal are beginning to show themselves, we are starting to see older athletes dominating in all kinds of events and taking home top prizes.
They’ve Still Got It
This past weekend, the Indianapolis 500 drew an incredible live crowd of 135,000 people — easily the largest assemblage of fans at any event since the lockdowns started. It makes sense that people would flock in droves to the event, considering how long they’ve been cooped up and how desperately many of them would just like to get back to living their lives.
But besides this, the Indianapolis 500 offered quite the surprise. The winner of the event was Helio Castroneves, a 46-year-old Indy car driver. Castroneves is an extremely accomplished racer, having won 25 major titles over the course of his career. With this latest win, he etches his name into the history books as one of only four men — Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt, and Al Unser are the others — to have won the Indianapolis 500 four separate times.
Even more surprising, because of his age, Castroneves had been essentially relegated to part-time status as a racer. And yet, he had managed to pull out this glorious win.
Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that about a week before Castroneves’ win, Phil Mickelson, the legendary golfer, was able to take home his sixth PGA Championship. Mickelson is now 50 years old, meaning that much of his competition during the event was only about half his age.
And then, of course, there’s Tom Brady. Earlier this year, Brady, 43, won his seventh Super Bowl Championship. Given the extraordinarily quick turnover and short careers of most professional football players, the fact that Brady can still lead his team to win championships at his age is nothing short of miraculous.
Here are some other old athletes who are still finding ways to remain at the top of their respective sports: LeBron James is 36 years old, Venus Williams is 40, and Roger Federer is 39, to name only a few examples.
Perhaps the wildest example of all, though, is Sister Madonna Buder, a 90-year-old nun who has been regularly competing in triathlons since she was 55.
It’s hard to know whether these old athletes have all somehow discovered the fountain of youth or whether there’s something about the younger generation today that just isn’t up to snuff, but in any case, these stories are all inspiring.