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Senior moments of the glorious kind

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Calvin Yang on 15 Apr 2018

The Straits Times

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Far from retiring, older folks are flying the flag for S'pore at races - and winning

 

Don't be fooled by John Chua's wizened face, small build and greying hair. On the track, the 74-year-old can run 100m in 16.25 seconds.

 

In fact, the wine consultant, who has been sprinting competitively for the past three years, has won more than 10 medals at local and regional masters competitions.

 

"People look at me in amazement that I sprint, even at my age," said Mr Chua, whose timing counts him among the best in South-east Asia for his age group. The world record for his category is 12.77sec, set by American Bobby Whilden, aged 70, in 2005.

 

Mr Chua is part of a growing crop of Singaporeans over 60 who are competing at a high level against more experienced foreign athletes, while breaking perceptions about ageing. These seniors - many of whom picked up a sport only in recent years - put in long hours to prepare for competitions.

 

Some go on to represent Singapore in events such as athletics and fencing at major international competitions and even end up on the podium.

 

In 2015, Mr Chua, at the age of 71, entered a regional competition, and surprised himself by making the finals. "I didn't win but I realised I could still sprint, so I decided to continue," he said.

 

Mr Chua, who will compete at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Spain in September, has spent nearly $10,000 on gear, flights, accommodation and fees for overseas competitions.  But he believes the opportunity to fly the flag for Singapore is worth every cent. "I never thought that I would be able to compete with athletes from other countries," he said.

 

His family members - including his 72-year-old wife and four daughters aged 33 to 44 - are "not surprised", having seen his love of sport. The septuagenarian trains for two hours, four days a week. When The Sunday Times visited him at Toa Payoh Stadium, he was putting himself through speed workouts alongside athletes a decade younger.

 

But he believes it is important not to over-train. "We can't afford to get injured. It is a blessing that I can still run at this age," said Mr Chua, who will rest or stop when he feels tightness in his muscles during training.

 

So far, he has only sustained aches and pains, while less fortunate senior athletes have suffered injuries to their knees and elbows.

 

While some were national athletes in their youth, others only picked up competitive sports later in life as a means to keep fit.

 

Weightlifter Tan Lay Sang, a former lawyer who retired in 2016, started exercising seven years ago due to a family history of osteoporosis. Her personal trainer later introduced her to weightlifting to increase her bone density.

 

"Before that, I had always been a couch potato," said the 52-year-old, who started representing Singapore in competitions two years ago. She has won several medals, including a gold in the 75kg (50-54 years) category at the Weightlifting Masters World Cup two years ago. "Many people have been amazed by my feats," she said. "I hope I have inspired them."

 

Observers point out that age-related problems, such as bone density loss and longer recovery from workouts, do occur, even in top athletes. Adjunct Associate Professor Roger Tian, medical director at the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre, said senior athletes should "always listen to their bodies, and pay attention to symptoms such as uncharacteristic aches and pains, and undue shortness of breath".

 

Experts say age should not be a barrier to competitive exercise, as there are benefits including preserving muscle and bone mass.

 

A recent article highlighted that many master endurance athletes have immune systems similar to young adults, according to National Institute of Education's Associate Professor Stephen Burns.

 

For those who have not exercised for years but want to do so, he advised: "Being sensible and not attempting to enter competitive events too soon after returning to a sport are the best ways to avoid injuries."

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.