Beating the clock

Alistair Bone chats to four women about what makes them still compete despite seeing 40 from the rear-view mirror.

ALISTAIR BONE
Last updated 13:14 02/07/2012
INSPIRATION:  Still going strong at 40, Irene van Dyk remains one of this country's most popular sportswomen.

INSPIRATION: Still going strong at 40, Irene van Dyk remains one of this country's most popular sportswomen.

PRICELESS: Marcia Petley is still competing and winning as a sprinter at 83, artificial knee and all.
PRICELESS: Marcia Petley is still competing and winning as a sprinter at 83, artificial knee and all.
SIDELINED: A knee injury ended Anna Richards' career after she won her fourth world cup title at the age of 45.
SIDELINED: A knee injury ended Anna Richards' career after she won her fourth world cup title at the age of 45.

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Irene van Dyk is way happier than most people. She is the most capped netballer of all time, she has World Series gold, World Championship gold, two bits of Commonwealth gold. She loves it all, including the training. Really.

"It's one of our happy times. Because it's a team sport, you get to spend time with people you actually like and who have a common goal."

There is an ANZ Championship to aim for and the battle with the Australians is eternal, but she's basically done it all. It must be getting boring.

"No, every time you take the court, there are always new things happening and new people to play against. I am definitely not getting bored at all."

OK, but the spark goes as you get older?

"The older you get, the more competitive you get to actually stay in the best physical and mental condition – purely to stay ahead of the pack."

She's bubbling over. She eats pain. She's a Terminator.

"I love the fact that you have to work so hard and be so precise in your nutrition and your training, your recovery. Everything you have to do has to be spot on."

Changes to netball means the game has become more physical. The team spend as much time working out in the gym as they do on court.

So as van Dyk has aged, the training regime has actually got tougher. This, too, is a good thing. She finds no difference in her 40-year-old body compared to her 30-year-old self, except that it's better because she is training harder.

Van Dyk is impossible. Elite as it gets. If pushed, she will say a "netball-ending" injury like a knee or a back problem might end her career.

The sort of thing that happened to Anna Richards. Richards – awarded the MNZM for services to rugby – would like to go on, too.

"If my knee wasn't rooted, I would probably be playing this year," she says.

It's not the sort of injury that gets better and Richards won't take the field again at the top level. Her career, even just the bit she did over 40, has been amazing.

She hoisted her fourth World Cup title with the Black Ferns team at the age of 45. Like van Dyk, she did it because she enjoyed it.

"If you don't and there is a lot of work to it, people don't usually do it."

It certainly wasn't for the money. "With the Black Ferns, we always seemed to be on the back foot trying to get games and we were on a very small daily allowance. I did say for years that I was waiting round to get my Ford from the NZRU – but that never happened. Then I said I'd wait around for the professional contracts – but that never happened!"

She says she was a better trainer at 40 than 30, but had to adapt. "At 40, it's all about managing your body because it had been a bit battered. In camp, we would do all the same training. Outside of that, I would do a bit more cross training, usually rowing. With my knees, and Achilles problems, the more you run, the more it impacts on things like that."

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She cites team-mates as an inspiration, but says it was ultimately down to her.

"It was really all about me – inspiring myself to do better. I was always about improving what I was doing all the time."

The drive's still there: she's busy – coaching an under-9 boys' team and College Rifles Women and being a resource coach for the NZRFU in the Auckland 7s area.

"And I'm on the Sports Tribunal. So I have less time now than when I played!"

She was much older than the oldest ever All Black – six-test veteran Edward Hughes was 40 years and 123 days when he ran on to the field against the Springboks in 1921. World Cup winner Brad Thorn, the second oldest All Black, was considered an antique at a sprightly 36.

Others have soldiered on over the hill. Forty-five-year-old George Foreman went 10 rounds with a 26-year-old world titleholder before knocking him out. Footballers Teddy Sheringham and Gordon Strachan managed to compete in the Premier League into their 40s.

But while the boys were all competing from a young age, Tauranga's Petra Creighton didn't do any sport at all when she was young. She only got into athletics in her 30s after she went running with friends.

"As the years went by, I got more and more competitive," she says. The wonderful byproduct of this is that she has no stories from back in the day.

"Everybody else looks back on how well they used to do in their teens."

But with no sporting history, at 44, she is still turning out personal bests.

She's objectively good, too. She runs against people in her age group – those aged 40 to 44. At the New Zealand Masters championship in March, she won the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1500 metre races and owns the 400m Oceania record.

The secret, she says, is to enjoy it and not take it too seriously.

"I focus on what works rather than what has been suggested for me. I run on the treadmill at home rather than the track."

Creighton can cover 100m in 13.81 seconds. She's motivated by winning and setting records – that waxes and wanes – but there are always new marks to beat. "I keep thinking I'll give it up and then I'll do a race and get all inspired again. And my kids are getting to the age where I can train with them. I'll be struggling to keep up with them over the next couple of years, so that will be my motivation then."

Then there's the rivalry. Soon she will be in the next bracket, for 45 to 49-year-olds, where she will face her nemesis in Katikati's machine, 48-year-old Sally Gibbs. In the 800m, Gibbs won her (older) age group with a time about three-quarters of a second faster than Creighton. Gibbs is 51sec quicker than Creighton over 1500m and the only woman of any age to break five minutes for the distance at the New Zealand Masters. Only one runner – a man in an age group below – beat Gibbs' time over 10,000m. Creighton is confident of winning under 400m, but above 800m, it will be tough.

"I guess I'll be coming second in a few races. It keeps us motivated."

Marcia Petley says about 10 per cent of masters athletes do it for fun, but most are very competitive. She's on the Masters Athletics national board and secretary of the Waikato/Bay of Plenty branch. She's also, at 83, still competing as a sprinter.

"Because I love it, that's why. I ran at the last worlds in Sacramento last year. I got five golds at the Oceania meeting at Tauranga in February. My legs have given out to some extent. But I've got an artificial knee and it hasn't stopped me."

She credits her genes – her daughter was coached by Arthur Lydiard in the United States and is still running at 53.

While the competitiveness is still there, Petley says it is not as cut throat as in the seniors (16 years to 30ish) and everyone is friends again after the last race. The battle when you get older seems to be more against yourself and the calendar rather than the clock.

Petley cut her leg open a couple of years ago and couldn't compete at the nationals.

"I was that brassed off. So I took up the weight throw. I got a New Zealand record on my first attempt. I'm not ready to stop yet."

The world masters will be held in Auckland in 2017. The first such event in 1985 attracted 8300 competitors, the last in Sydney in 2009 got almost 29,000.

"People are wanting to do something these days," Petley says.

"You see them striding out all over the place. People come along when they have got their family more or less off their hands. They say, `gee, we haven't done this since we left school,' and they really like it."

She says Masters Athletics gets "ripped off" on the hire of parks and domains and receives no Government help.

"The North Island track and field champs will be held in Hamilton in November and we needed a grant from the Lion Foundation to get it going."

The World Masters Athletics championships are held every two years; the next will be in Brazil in 2013, but Petley might give that one a miss.

Beyond that, the future's bright. The one after that is in France in 2015, then it's Perth in 2017.

She's planning on starting at both.

- Waikato Times

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