Tao Porchon-Lynch had just turned 87 when she fell outside a grocery store and broke her hip. After her hip-replacement surgery, her doctor wanted to have a little chat.
He told the lifelong yoga enthusiast to get used to the idea that her body would never quite be the same. She’d have to slow down a bit. Be easier on herself. Grow accustomed to doing less than she might like.
Porchon-Lynch considered the advice, then reflected on her reaction to it: NO. WAY.
One month after her surgery, she wandered into a ballroom dancing studio and started lessons that very night. Today, at age 93, Porchon-Lynch and her 23-year-old dance partner are sweeping ballroom-dancing competitions in New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. She’s also continuing to teach at least 12 yoga classes a week.
“I sent my doctor a photo of myself, lifting myself off the ground with my legs crossed and balancing on my hands, along with a little note saying, ‘I just wanted to show you that there’s nothing you can’t do,’ ” said Porchon-Lynch, who lives in White Plains, N.Y. “He laughed and put it up in his office. ... That really is how I feel. Don’t tell me I can’t do it.”
Porchon-Lynch’s determination is striking — but, these days, it isn’t entirely uncommon. Geriatric specialists say longevity is the new normal, so perhaps it’s inevitable that more and more people are achieving stunning physical accomplishments well into their 80s, 90s and beyond.
Last October, Lew Hollander became the second 80-year-old to complete the grueling annual Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. This year, at age 81, the Oregon resident is planning take the record as the oldest person ever to complete the event, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon run.
Likewise, Olga Kotelko, a 92-year-old track-and-field champion from Canada, has been deemed one of the world’s greatest athletes. She holds more than 20 world records for track-and-field events, and she’s been studied extensively because of her enduring physical prowess.
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In less rarified — but still impressive — realms, it’s increasingly common to see participants in their 70s and 80s at marathons, triathlons and long-distance cycling events across the country. There are also senior baseball leagues, senior softball leagues, senior swim teams — even senior rodeo events.
“We are witnessing the biggest demographic transformation in human history ... where advances in medicine and lifestyle improvements and awareness of factors that lead to healthy aging have enabled people to reach a very old age,” said Dr. Jeffrey M. Levine, a geriatric specialist in New York City. “This is really a recent phenomenon in history.”
Staying in the saddle
Levine has observed all sorts of patterns that seem to help people age well: healthy lifestyle choices; regular physical activity; spirituality; loving relationships; solid friendships; a genuine sense of community; a real passion and enthusiasm for life. But whenever people ask him to identify the secret bullet for aging successfully, he has a favorite response that he likes to give.
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“Choose your parents very carefully,” Levine said. “Much of aging has to do with genetics. It doesn’t give you a sure shot at aging well, but it increases your chances.”
This, of course, is tied to how much physical strength and stamina a person might continue to have later in life. In a New York Times Magazine article about aging athletes, muscle physiologist Tanja Taivassalo struggled to understand why muscle fibers mysteriously seem to stop responding to training in many — but not all — people after about age 75.
“There’s a slide I show in my physical-activity-and-aging class,” Taivassalo told the Times. “You see a shirtless fellow holding barbells, but I cover his face. I ask the students how old they think he is. I mean, he could be 25. He’s just ripped. Turns out he’s 67. And then in the next slide there’s the same man at 78, in the same pose. It’s very clear he’s lost almost half of his muscle mass, even though he’s continued to work out. So there’s something going on.”
Sure, such findings sound discouraging — but not to the legions of octogenarians and nonagenarians who simply refuse to sit down.
What makes them so tireless? For one thing, they absolutely love the activities they’ve found to do. Even if some of it is a hard slog, the pleasure they get from it always outweighs the tedium.
Consider Allan Johnson, 80, of Calhan, Colo. The rodeo champion has been addicted to calf-roping ever since he gave it a try at his very first rodeo on July 4, 1946.
“I was 16 years old, and my Dad, he couldn’t figure it out,” Johnson recalled. “He asked me, ‘Are you about to quit this after your first rodeo?’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to do this my whole life.’ And look at me now.”
Today, Johnson still regularly participates in physically demanding — and potentially dangerous — tie-down calf-roping events as a member of the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association. He has an indoor arena so he can practice riding and roping all year long, regardless of the weather.
“I ride nearly every day and rope two or three times a week,” he said. “Of course, you know horses, they’re unpredictable. They’re gentle to a degree, but if something goes wrong, they’ll come undone.”Story: After 80 rejections, inventor, 84, comes up with a winner
As evidence of that, Johnson has amassed a lifetime of injuries. He’s broken numerous fingers, and he’s broken his left leg twice. He’s also broken both his arms. (“I can’t bend ‘em out straight,” he explained nonchalantly. “They’re completely crooked.”)
Johnson put a remarkably positive spin on the two knee replacements he’s had.
“Oh, they’ve turned out really well,” he said. “I was getting to where my legs were so bowed you could have run a calf between ‘em. Now my legs are straight and I have no pain. They can do amazing things with knees and hips and shoulders these days.”
John South, 68, general manager of the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association, said he’s consistently awe-struck by Johnson and other association members in their late 70s and early 80s.Story: On 100th birthday, he married the woman of his dreams
“They’re all active,” South said. “They saddle their horses, exercise their horses, exercise themselves, eat properly — all the things an athlete does. ...
“What they do requires a lot of hard work and dedication. You can’t read a book and practice roping. You’ve got to actually get out there and do it. ... And if you lose your balance and fall off your horse, that ground is really hard.”
Be strong, be gentle
Granted, there comes a time when even the most dedicated athletes are no longer able to maintain the pace they once knew. Despite that, many still find ways for their lifelong activity to be a source of great contentment.
Keiko Fukuda, 98, of San Francisco, has devoted her entire adult life to judo. She was in her early 20s and living in her native Japan when Jigoro Kano — judo’s founder — approached her about practicing judo in a new women’s division.
“This is when my life destiny was set,” Fukuda said through a translator in “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful,” a documentary about her life.
“Master Kano wanted us to spread judo around the world. At first others were interested. But in the end, I was the only one who did.”
After participating in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, Fukuda relocated to the United States to teach judo in 1966. She started her own dojo in San Francisco, trained hundreds of students and kept progressing in judo herself. Despite her towering accomplishments and dedication, she remained frozen as a fifth-degree black belt for 30 years.
“The belt ranks for women were very old-fashioned and sexist,” she said. “There was nothing above fifth degree for women.”Video: 'Cane fu'! Senior citizens learn self-defense (on this page)
Over the decades, her judo students and women’s rights activists helped spread the word about Fukuda’s status, and Fukuda overcame many struggles of her own. And just this month, something incredible happened: Fukuda became the first woman ever to attain a 10th-degree black belt, judo’s highest honor. Only three other people — all men living in Japan — have the same rank.Story: At 83, subject of ‘American Girl in Italy’ photo speaks out
“She feels like she has even more responsibility now to teach the teachings of Kano ... so that her students really absorb it, heart and soul, and have the ability to live these teachings,” said Yuriko Gamo Romer, 54, the filmmaker who is raising funds so she can finish “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful” and release it next year. “His teachings are about finding your own strength and energy and using it to your community’s benefit, or to benefit the society that you’re living in.”
Today, Grand Master Fukuda has Parkinson’s disease and bad knees that force her to spend much — but not all — of her time sitting down. Even so, she still teaches multiple judo and self-defense classes each week, runs annual tournaments and camps, and remains passionate about empowering women.
Her path resembles that of Porchon-Lynch, the yoga instructor and ballroom-dancing champion. Just this year, Porchon-Lynch attended a peace summit with the Dalai Lama, won numerous first-place ballroom-dancing awards and released a new meditation book and CD.
“I say the verb ‘to can’ applies to canning fruits and vegetables. The verb I prefer to use is ‘to be able,’” Porchon-Lynch said. “Don’t be scared to live. Don’t procrastinate. There’s very little time on this Earth and there’s so much to do and so much beauty. ... There’s nothing you can’t do.”
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