Age is just a number

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 October, 2011, 12:00am


The 1930s comedian Will Rogers joked: 'We could certainly slow the ageing process down if it had to work its way through Congress.' Nearly a century later, age has become a state of mind and many are laughing it in the face.

Just ask extreme athletes who improve with age.

Recently, a group of Hong Kong women defied age stereotypes to compete in the Hawaiian Na Wahine O Ke Ka'i (Women of the Sea). Finishing 16th in an international field of 73 crews, they proved that training and discipline overrule age and big-wave paddling experience.

Adopting the maxim '50 is the new 40, and 40 is the new 30', the team has an average age of 38, with half the women over 40.

Most sports have a Holy Grail event, and this was 'the Big Kahuna' for the team of 10 who were selected from four paddle clubs locally. Ethnically diverse, they hail from seven nations.

Team Phoenix entered the race knowing they weren't going to win; however it was a first for a Hong Kong women's crew to be on the starting line. In fact, they regarded just finishing the 65-kilometre race an accomplishment. (Two men's teams from Hong Kong have done the race in the past). Outrigging's ultimate race offers spectacular scenery and unpredictable conditions as it runs from Hale O Lono Harbour on Molaka'i Island to Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki. The crews paddle across the Kaiw'i channel on a 400-pound hi-tech fibreglass outrigger canoe built for six paddlers, known as an OC6. The waters can be treacherous, and boats often 'huli' (capsize).

The boat's Japanese steerswoman and only crew member to stay in the boat for the duration of the race, Kiyomi 'Messan' Makino, turned 50 last April, and has plans to do the race for another decade or so.

'When I had my recent full medical in Phuket, my results were not only better than last year; the doctors called in other cardiologists to watch my stress test. They had never seen a woman get up to level six, let alone a woman of 50.'

Originally a surfer, she turned her hand to outrigging in 1998 when she moved from Hawaii to Hong Kong. Makino has raced extensively in Hawaii, Australia and Guam. As the steerswoman, the ultimate responsibility lies with her ability to choose the 'line' for the boat, picking the fastest path in the gruelling channel race. The Phoenix crew clocked 65.25 kilometres in six hours and four minutes, knocking around an hour off their predicted time.

What makes the Molokai race unique is its length and the fact that a lot of time is spent in the water, even without capsizing. This is a continuous-change race - meaning every 15 minutes three of the crew jump out of one side of the canoe while three fresh paddlers climb in from the other side. They sprint for 15 minutes and fresh bodies are again rotated into the canoe.

Makino believes that for an athlete in such endurance sports, age is a bonus. 'You learn how to engineer your body to do what you want it to do. You learn how to train the mind and body towards a target race. You cannot give 100 per cent for over six hours in the sea or in a marathon, but experience tells you where to give more and where to take it easier in a race.'

Makino is convinced racing is all about physiology, as well as psychology. 'With age, your training strategy becomes diversified. And, as you get older, you can never overtrain because when the body talks, you listen. Rest often sounds to younger athletes like doing nothing. They associate it with stalling. We should use the word 'recovery day' or 'active rest' rather than just 'rest'.'

It is often said that sprinters are born but endurance athletes are made. Australian teammate Kirsty Boazman agrees: 'With experience in endurance races of any kind, you become acutely aware of how your body responds throughout. You use a lot of self-talk, know how to map your personal, physical and mental thresholds through a long race, and get better at tricking the body to get over those thresholds.'

Hong Kong-based physiotherapist Doug Tahirali has treated outrigger canoeists and has theories on the age factor. 'One interesting phenomena we are seeing in Hong Kong is the age of the endurance athletes. Whether it is outriggers, marathons or other events there are a lot of athletes in Hong Kong who are 35-plus excelling in these sports.

'Older athletes have the mental fortitude and they've gone through enough turmoil to tough it out. They've hit the wall and come out the other side enough times.'

Sandy Jenner is the only Phoenix paddler with a Polynesian past, hailing from New Zealand with a Samoan mother. 'When I am paddling I can feel the power of my ancestors, and their sense of oneness with the ocean. We see the boat not only as part of the family, the seventh crew member, but as an extension of ourselves. I never feel as much in touch with nature as I do when I'm in an outrigger.'

A race on Australia's Gold Coast earlier in the year stood the Phoenix crew in good stead for a fast finish. 'The team did a great job of keeping their heads in and sprinting - for over six hours,' said captain Lara Wozniak.

The sea is a mistress who is consistent in her inconsistencies. No training can make a crew entirely bulletproof. 'We are going into an open-water race and the biggest wave we've trained on in Hong Kong is the wake kicked up by the Macau ferry,' said team member Corinne Parker.

Collectively, the women have competed at an elite level in surf skiing, swimming, triathlon, dragon boating and rowing. But a team of champions doesn't make a champion team.

Training brought the Phoenix together with three sessions on the water each week and extra hours of paddling, cycling, Pilates, running and the gym. 'We had an online database to track all of our training on and off the water,' said Laura Ediger. 'It's all about accountability. Every time you looked at what other people were doing, it would motivate you to work harder and do more.'

University of Hong Kong assistant professor and team member Sara Jordan had a rigorous training programme that included chin-ups with a dive belt around her waist to create extra strength to help with pulling her into the outrigger from the sea every 15 minutes For two of the crew, including Hong Kong-Canadian Summie Tam, there was the added concern of getting seasick in the choppy waters expected for the race. They've lived the adage - there are only two stages of seasickness: the stage you think you are going to die, and the stage you wish you would.

Had the breeze and swell kicked in Hawaii, the Phoenix paddlers' shortfall of big waves to practise on in Hong Kong may have made for a different outcome.

'For us, it wasn't an easy race, they were bigger swells than we were used to, even if they weren't six metres high,' said Cheryl Fender, who went to training at dawn before school drop-offs for her children.

Paddling longer events of up to 42 kilometres like the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club's annual Around the Island Race and the Dragon Run gave crew members the opportunity to hone their deep-water change skills, as did racing on Australia's Gold Coast in May.

At 28, Frenchwoman Camille De Carmejane is the pup of the crew but with some serious international surfski experience under her belt. She said: 'The team training and the race bonded us in a way that's beyond friendship. I can see myself doing this race in 20 years and beyond. It's addictive.'

Whatever their penchant, these athletes have embodied pioneering pilot and author Antoine de Saint Exupery's philosophy: 'If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and assign tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.'