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46-year-old gymnast competes in 8th Olympics, proves age is just a number

It's still a young person's game, but the right genetics paired with the right coaches can result in great performances.
Tokyo Olympics: Artistic Gymnastics
Uzbek gymnast Oksana Chusovitina takes part in official practice for the Tokyo Olympics on July 22, 2021, at Ariake Gymnastics Centre.Kyodo News via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Like all of her fellow Olympic female gymnasts competing in Tokyo, Oksana Chusovitina is tiny, impossibly agile and explosively fast.

What makes people do a double-take is her age.

At 46, Chusovitina is the oldest Olympic gymnast in history, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics marking the eighth time she's competing in the Summer Games. The 5-foot tall, 97-pound dynamo is representing Uzbekistan and hoping to qualify for the final in the vault — her specialty — which takes place Aug. 1.

She told reporters this week these Olympics would be her last.

"My son is 22 years old and I want to spend time with him. I want to be a mom and wife," Chusovitina said, according to the Guardian.

She made her Olympic debut almost 30 years ago and has won two Olympic medals since, one gold and one silver.

She's not the only Olympian getting attention for her age in Tokyo.

Team USA includes runner Abdi Abdirahman, 44; race walker Robyn Stevens, 38; and equestrian Phillip Dutton, 57. Romania's Marian Dragulescu, known as the "king of vault," is 40.

Gymnastics is especially demanding on bodies, with many athletes reaching their peak performance in their teens and early 20s, and retiring soon after. Injuries abound as the petite competitors flip, twist and fly through the air. It's a sport where 30 seems old and 40 downright ancient.

So Chusovitina’s longevity and ability to stay in top form is amazing. Age really is just a number, she said.

Chusovitina performs on the balance beam at The World Cup Gymnastics Final on February 24, 2019, at Melbourne Arena in Australia.Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

"On the podium, everyone is the same whether you are 40 or 16. You have to go out and do your routine and your jumps,” Chusovitina told The Associated Press in 2016.

"But it's a pity there are no points for age.”

She had “no pain, no problems” while she trained, Chusovitina told the agency then, adding she didn't know how she stayed fit and may have her parents’ good genes to thank. Talking to reporters in 2021, she said she feels good physically.

It's still a young person's game and as athletes age, they need to adjust their training, but the right genetics paired with the right coaches can result in great performances, said Nicole Detling, assistant professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Utah.

"It's absolutely true that we lose flexibility and agility with age," Detling told TODAY. "However, there are some anomalies who can maintain through 'older' ages."

Born on April 19, 1975, Chusovitina first competed in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona — five years before current gymnastics star Simone Biles was born — where she won a team gold medal for the Unified Team made up of former Soviet republics.

She’s been back ever since, coming out of retirement for Rio. Chusovitina is competing against women in their teens, which could let her tap her superior experience or make things more daunting. How does a huge age difference affect an athlete's mindset?

"If she views it as a hindrance, it is. If she uses it as an advantage, it is," Detling said. "Hopefully she worked with a mental skills coach to learn to see it as an advantage."

Chusovitina might take advice from U.S. swimmer Dara Torres, who won an Olympic medal in 2008 at the age of 41.

"I had to dig deep inside of myself, rethink how to train my body, and ask new questions about what makes a person stronger and more flexible — in body and in mind. In other words, I had to understand how not to let my age get in my way," Torres wrote.

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