Old, Bold Paddlers

By Johna Till Johnson

There’s an old saying, variously applied to pilots, Marines, race-car drivers, and other professional risk-takers: “There are old pilots. There are bold pilots. But there are no old, bold pilots.”

I was thinking of this as I swam my daily laps today, in the company of a woman who’d taken up aquatics after two hip replacements—which she attributed to 30 years of aerobics. She pointed out that Jane Fonda (aka aerobics queen) had to get both her hip and knee replaced.

And many runners have had to give up their beloved sport due to joint damage from years of pounding. Then there are the activities that are almost exclusively the province of the under-30 folks: Gymnastics. Professional dance. Skateboarding.

The message is that the world is full of things that you can’t do wholeheartedly for your whole life: You can’t be old and bold.

That got me to thinking: Kayaking is one of the few sports where that’s flat-out not true. Sure, whitewater appeals to younger athletes. But sea kayakers are at least as likely to be middle-aged or older.

Usually we complain about this. Sea kayakers bemoan the fact that our sport appears to be dominated by the middle-aged—maybe because that reminds us that we’re no longer the young hipsters.

But you know what? I like the fact we sea kayakers can be old and bold.

How bold? Well, the races I’ve paddled in don’t have age classes–just boat classes. And the guy who regularly wins the fastest, most competitive category turned 70 a few years ago (we think). At any rate, he got a lot faster after he retired.

Yep, you got that right—this guy routinely trounces 25-year olds.

And he’s not unusual. Older kayakers routinely show the young ‘uns up with feats of endurance and athleticism. And my dad, a natural athlete, kayaked until the last year of his life—when he was 79.

Kayaking is one of those rare sports in which technique and endurance are more important than strength and explosive power—which means you can keep getting better and better as you age.

In sum: There are plenty of old, bold kayakers. I aspire to be one!

Preparing to be bold (at the 2011 Blackburn Challenge)… and those are NOT white hairs, yet!

16 responses to “Old, Bold Paddlers

  1. Alleluia, amen. May we all still be paddling when we’re a hundred and five.


  2. I’ve been considering this recently as well. In all of the clubs I volunteer with, there are some elderly people who regularly outpace people a third their age. The nice thing about sea kayaking is that with proper technique, you’re not straining anything fragile. It’s all core and cardio.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Yes! Actually, I have a very funny canoe story about how my 60-ish parents really showed up me and my (then) husband–both of us athletic 20-somethings.

      And I hear you on “Core and cardio”–nicely put!

      I also think women have some particular advantages. We tend to out-perform men at extreme endurance events (both aquatic and land-based). My theory is that we transition more easily into fat-burning mode during intense exercise, perhaps because our bodies are trying to support reproductive functions (stay fertile, maintain pregnancies, who knows?). At any rate, even for post-menopausal women, the metabolic pathways remain… that’s my theory, anyway. Couple that with the fact that we (women) are typically more flexible initially, and (with practice) maintain flexibility well into old age…

      At any rate, both men and women are well-positioned to be old, bold, paddlers!


  3. Excellent post!!!! I love kayaking with others in “our” age bracket. Excitement to me is looking at the scenery, checking out the marine life, other boats and exploring waterways. Can’t do that running past them


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hi Vicki!

      Yes, all that and dodging the occasional Staten Island Ferry :-). I agree you see more from the water, although I’m not entirely sure why…


  4. There’s another hypothesis about women kayakers–they are more willing than us guys to make hip movements that are important to steering and balance.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Ben, that’s a fascinating hypothesis! I think it could well be true, although in my case it took years to figure out the connection between lower-body movement and boat control. (Not that I have it “figured out” now, but…)

      Interestingly, what really made a huge difference in my training was the observation by one of my CrossFit coaches that there’s ONE fundamental motion in athletics: driving power from your feet through your chest by explosively straightening your legs. He pointed out that’s how basketball players jump, for instance—and I realized immediately that the same motion applies in kayaking. (This is why CrossFit participants are obsessively doing various flavors of squats–they’re working on that motion!)

      Anyway, it may be that women have a head start on that understanding, for some reason, though I personally didn’t. Fascinating hypothesis.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Okay, Ben: I have to reply again.

      I think you are 100% correct on this one. During our recent Long Island circumnavigation, my skeg conked out, and I found myself relying heavily on hip motions to balance and control the boat. I remember even thinking about it, “Boy, this is a lot like belly-dancing!”. Not a lot of male belly-dancers out there… :-)

      So yes, I think you’re spot on!


  5. Marcos Dinnerstein

    As a former ballet dancer I’ve been keenly aware of what you put so well here. I plan on paddling well into my dotage. I’ll just have the nurse lead me to the boat, turn on the GPS so when I forget where I am ole nursey can fire up the motorboat and come get me when it gets dark and I’m still not back at the dock. What’s not to like about this plan?


    • Johna Till Johnson

      :-) Well, Marcos, hopefully paddling will help PREVENT you from having a dotage! And the good news is that (as you probably know), dancers make the BEST paddlers (there’s a comment from one of the coaches about that in “edging into artistry”.) So you have a a built-in advantage over the rest of us!


  6. I just read an article in Adventure Kayak magazine about the other side of this—trying to get younger people excited about sea kayaking, because the majority of those doing it are older. The article is entitled “Making Sea Kayaking Cool”, as if it wasn’t already. Lol.

    I’m a kayaking newbie at age 38, and I’m thrilled that this is something where the people who are rocking it out are older. I like knowing that I’ll be doing this for many, many years to come. There are so many sports where to be considered a success (or competitive) you have to start as a child and you’re finished by 30. It might be exciting (like watching a comet), but life lasts a lot longer than that!


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hi grackle!

      I think I read that article, and it was bouncing around in the back of my head when I thought of this.

      We are so happy to have you join the sport! (Speaking on behalf of sea kayakers everywhere :-). It really is true that you get better as you get older.

      There is one downside, though, and I feel compelled to share it with you: When you first start, kayaking is a wonderful workout. But as you improve, it takes less physical effort–which means you have to go back to your gym workouts for overall fitness. Fortunately you don’t need to do much… but it’s important not to forget (I swim and lift weights, and occasionally do running sprints).


      • Thanks! I will heed your advice. I started working out with bodyweight and kettlebell exercises this year, and I’ve seen too many good results to give it up. I hope that the workouts and the kayaking will complement each other and keep me paddling for many years to come.


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