I recently strained my rotator cuff, and I blame a pair of Olympic swimmers and Cirque du Soleil for the pain. I have been inspired of late by several sports-comeback heroes in their mid- to late 30s: Tom Brady leading the Patriots to an improbable Super Bowl win; Roger Federer overcoming Rafael Nadal in a decisive fifth set in the Australian Open to secure his 18th Grand Slam title. Others have remained dominant well into their 30s — Serena Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam singles championship at 35, also at the Australian Open, defeating her 36-year-old sister in the final.
Here’s the thing: We actually shouldn’t be so surprised. When athletes train consistently, recover smartly and get a little lucky, there’s no physiological reason their bodies should fall off a cliff in their 30s.
My curiosity was piqued last summer during the Rio Olympics, when I saw this headline: “Michael Phelps Faces His Toughest Challenger Yet — Age.” Old Man Phelps was 31.
I was spending a lot of time talking about aging athletes with Michael Joyner, a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic, and we were both struck by the coverage of Olympic athletes beyond their 20s. You’d have thought Phelps needed a walker to get poolside, not that he would win enough gold to forge a breastplate.
He wasn’t the only one: Less heralded was the American swimmer Anthony Ervin, who, at 35, practically had one flipper-like foot in the coffin. At the 2000 Olympics, Ervin won gold in the 50-meter freestyle as a 19-year-old. Three years later, he went cold turkey on swimming. He moved to Brooklyn, became a musician and started smoking. In 2011, nearly a decade later, Ervin started swimming again to help kick the cigarettes. He added more recovery to his regimen compared with his training in years past, but otherwise, he said, it barely changed. In Rio, Ervin won gold, again.
After watching Ervin, I decided to look into misperceptions of how athletes age. I called Dean Kriellaars, physiologist to Cirque du Soleil. He has decades of data on acrobats and gymnasts (some are former Olympians) who have performed thousands of physically rigorous shows. They wear biometric vests that track their activity, and their aging defies common medical wisdom.
Typical adults start losing bone density after 30, but Kriellaars works with performers pushing 60 who have yet to experience any decline. By that age, they have added some fat no matter how active they are, but many have barely lost muscle. “We have a 58-year-old female banquine artist,” Kriellaars told me, referring to a discipline that’s like cheerleading crossed with aerial gymnastics, “and we have her doing the same thing as a 20-year-old gymnast.” Her husband, Kriellaars added, is one of the banquine “porters” who throws acrobats around, and he’s over 60, “and ripped.”
Kriellaars himself is in his 50s and tries to learn a new sport or skill every year, from kiteboarding to in-line skating. After the interview, I resolved to do the same. But what sport?
From following physiology literature and spending time around late-career elite athletes, I was already well aware that old dogs can both learn new tricks and slow the rate at which they lose old ones. There are, of course, sports where athletes age pretty predictably; a Yale economist who analyzed over 80 years of baseball players found that hitters are declining by age 29, which happens to be when visual acuity starts deteriorating, and worsen faster than runners and swimmers, but not by much.
But there are also athletes like Brady: If he avoids a major injury, I would not be surprised to see him playing in his late 40s. With modern rule changes that are friendly to the passing game and unfriendly to beating up on quarterbacks, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to maintain or even improve his perceptual skills. Each play is a flashcard that teaches a QB to read the field intuitively like a chessboard. As Brady put it after the Super Bowl, his job is “not as hard as it used to be.”
Clearly, though, I was not going to pick up quarterbacking as my new skill for the year. Joyner sent me a paper about a Danish rower who won a medal in five straight Olympics between ages 19 and 40, and for a moment I thought about trying rowing. But beginning as a rower in Brooklyn felt tortuous. I wanted to start with something simple that I could do anywhere.
I was a runner in college, and have continued that exercise, but I would need to regain some upper-body strength to manage a planche. I started with a strength routine I used to do with a college teammate after runs: a push-up pyramid. One person does a push-up, and a partner follows suit, and then the first person does two, and so on up to some number and back down to one. It involves 100 push-ups at minimum, and you have to wait in the up position while your partner takes his turn. If he gets tired, you spend a long time in the up position waiting to go. I was going to make it a little easier in my old, post-Phelpsian mid-30s, by just counting out the push-ups my partner would have done, without accounting for him getting tired.
I turned on some motivational music — the “Serena Williams’s Spontaneous Speed” album, of course — and got to work. I was about halfway through my first pyramid (going up to 10 and back down) when I realized I was feeling something more than simple fatigue. I kept going, and pretty soon realized something in my shoulder was definitely not right, so called it a (very unsatisfying) day.
The next morning, I needed help slipping into a shirt, and couldn’t rotate my shoulder back far enough to put a jacket on. (Thankfully, it was summer.) I had strained my right rotator cuff, and would be getting dressed with only my left hand for the next month. It’s an injury more often suffered by elderly people who use their arms to get out of a chair.
“Welcome to pre-middle age!” Joyner told me. I couldn’t help but think of the words of Brick Pollitt, the broken-down ex-football star in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”: “People like to do what they used to do, after they’ve stopped being able to do it.”
My first thought was that I had, in some way, simply become too old for pyramids, and I’d have to accept that. Then I thought about it for a moment. I had failed to follow a single piece of advice I would have given a friend in the same position.
I thought of Federer. He has credited luck and his attacking style of play, which leads to short points and less running around, for some of his longevity. But he also eased into his career in a certain manner of speaking, playing fewer tournaments than many of his competitors early on. In late 2014, I remembered Federer talking about how he felt bringing more consistency to his training — rather than ramping his training way down and then up just before tournaments — helped him temper back problems as he got older.
To be sure, there are athletes who do seem almost to expire in short order. Tiger Woods, for example, seems to be in perpetual partial comeback from one injury or another in recent years, a result perhaps of bad luck and the increased injury risk of athletes who specialize extremely early.
Even Serena Williams’s father backed off on competitions when she was 10 so that she (and her sister, Venus) would have a lighter load. As for Brady, he embraced variety early: He was drafted as a catcher out of high school by the Montreal Expos.
I started over, with an eye less toward pushing through every day and more toward a Federer model: Start slow and build to consistency, rest when my body says so … and ditch Serena’s pump-up jams until I worked up to more intensity.
I was pleasantly surprised — shocked, really, at how quickly I could do push-up pyramids again. The biggest challenge was refraining from jumping ahead in my progression after every good day. Thanks to YouTube tutorials, I learned an array of exercises that lead sequentially up to the planche (start with the planche lean, kids), and I’m sure I can get there if I stay consistent.
We pay a lot of lip service to the lessons that sport can teach: perseverance, teamwork, composure — and sometimes those actually manifest.
The greatest lesson, though, might be unfurling right now, as a generation of athletes shows us that raging against the dying of the light takes little more than a dash of luck and a heap of consistency. And occasionally a few rule changes friendly to the offense.