Sports

Canadian track star Olga Kotelko dead at 95

Olga Kotelko poses in Toronto on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. Kotelko, one of Canada
Olga Kotelko poses in Toronto on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. Kotelko, one of Canada's most accomplished track and field athletes with dozens of world records and medals to her credit, has died. She was 95. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
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By Lauren La Rose, The Canadian Press

Olga Kotelko, one of Canada's most accomplished track and field athletes with dozens of world records and medals to her credit, has died. She was 95.

Kotelko's biographer, Bruce Grierson, told The Canadian Press that the Vancouver resident died in hospital early Tuesday after suffering an intracranial hemorrhage on Saturday.

Born in Vonda, Sask., northeast of Saskatoon, on March 2, 1919, Kotelko was the seventh of 11 kids raised on a farm during the Depression. She later left an abusive marriage to an alcoholic husband, heading west to pave her own path as a single mother in the 1950s. Her eldest daughter, Nadine, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma at age 53, and died in 1999.

The retired schoolteacher joined a softball league at age 70, playing five positions. She took up track and field at age 77, setting more than two dozen world records and earning hundreds of medals along the way.

Keeping active was a central part of Kotelko's life. She attended AquaFit classes three times a week while her schoolyard training sessions involved intervals of jogging and walking, as well as shot put throws and long jump.

As a competitor on the masters circuit which features other veteran participants, Kotelko's significant medal haul and athletic accomplishments later in life had long been a focal point of fascination. But when Kotelko was asked during a January interview for her own personal theories on why she excelled, she offered only humility.

"I thought to myself, 'This is something that I can do, that I enjoy it.' I really do like competing and I stayed with it, and that's what I'm doing now — and I don't expect to stop. I don't see any reasons why I should stop," she told The Canadian Press while seated alongside Grierson during a visit to Toronto in support of his book "What Makes Olga Run?"

"It's good for me, it's good for my health, and what I really want to do is share this experience of myself and my life with the people."

While Kotelko treasured all of her achievements, carrying the Olympic torch as part of the relay for the 2010 Vancouver Games was a particular standout for the star athlete.

"I think that it's once in a lifetime that you get an opportunity like that, but over 750 gold medals is quite treasured — and I give my medals away. I don't keep them. Because why do I need 800 medals? At this point, I know I'm going to get some more."

Grierson said Kotelko was supposed to be competing in Kelowna, B.C., this week. In March, she took part in the World Masters Athletics Indoor Championships in Budapest in her new 95-99 age category.

"It wasn't like she was tapering off or anything. In some weird way, she'd never been more fit and ready than right now," Grierson said Wednesday from Vancouver.

Billed as a modern-day quest for the fountain of youth, Grierson's book explored how Kotelko and several other seniors continued to compete and thrive at a stage in their lives when many of their peers are slowing down. In addition to undergoing tests of cognitive skills, muscle tissues and more, Grierson ruminated on whether other aspects of Kotelko's life could help explain her physical prowess.

"People will say: 'It's amazing what you do, Olga.' But she will say: 'You know what?' If I can do it, you can do it,'" Grierson said.

"She would want herself to be an example of what can be done with the right attitude and the right habits and the right strategies. There's nothing we can do about our genes. She obviously had some good genes too.

"But a bigger part of the story was how you decide to live your life, how you decide to think your thoughts and approach things. And she very deliberately led a life of awesome health right to the last breath."

Grierson said that Kotelko's funeral will be held on Thursday and that she is survived by her daughter, Lynda Rabson, son-in-law Richard, and grandchildren Alesa and Matthew.

Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.

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