I know I have posted a few articles with some inspiring seniors, but senior athletes are absolutely awesome and inspiring... and this article about Charles Eugester is no different!
Meet Charles Eugster, Britain's fastest nonagenarian
At 96 years old, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this retired dentist's sporting days were behind him. However, multiple athletic records, global weightlifting titles and 36 World Rowing Masters medals tell a different story
Dr Charles Eugster, a 96-year old retired dentist with dual British/Swiss nationality, is a changed man.
Nine years ago, his body was deteriorating badly, he was overweight and short of breath – to put it another way, his body was winding down. But Eugster fought back and now, almost a decade on, he is leading a pensioner revolution with a new lease of life.
Born in London in 1919, Eugster was educated at St Paul's School for Boys and discovered early on that he had an aptitude for sport over studies. "I did my best to excel at sports because I knew that I could not excel academically," Eugster tells me. "My teacher once said, 'Eugster, if your brain were to be put into the skull of a sparrow it would rattle'."
Despite wanting to pursue a career as a physician, Eugster was advised to settle for something a little less educationally rigorous. He decided on dentistry, which whilst still demanding, was considered an easier choice. As the 96-year old says, "it is easier; after all, there are only so many teeth".
After amassing four degrees from four universities, the young Eugster opened a dental practice in Switzerland, married, had children and settled down. Other than the odd swim or ski, his life considerably slowed down. "While I wasn’t exactly a couch potato, I just became an average person with regards to exercising."
During his time studying in London, Eugster had often rowed at the Thames Rowing Club. So when, at 63, he discovered an over-60s category for rowers, his past interest in the sport was rekindled. "I began competing in the World Masters Rowing Regattas and I was able to accumulate, I think, around 40 gold medals".
But then the trouble began. "I had the unpleasant experience of, how should I put it, ‘losing my breath’ in a rowing race in Poland – something which I discovered later didn’t have anything to do with my breathing – but had to do with heart arrhythmia."
Over the next decade or so, Eugster's body became less robust, weakened by age, but this was a fight he was determined not to lose. The man who had beaten tuberculosis and a considerable lung cavity in earlier life was not about to let his slower lifestyle pull the rug out from under him. So he came up with a plan – one he recounts to me in the coolest of voices, as if it was the most natural solution in the world. "Being extremely vain, I wanted to rebuild my body. So, at the age of 87, I joined a bodybuilding club and hired a former Mr Universe as my coach – who rather frightened me, actually."
Eugster became Britain's oldest bodybuilder, but the risks remained. Training in your advanced years, he tells me, is a meticulous science.
"What people do not realise is that if you do endurance training such as walking or cycling – which is often recommended for older people – that does not combat sarcopenia, which is a loss of muscle mass, loss of power, loss of strength. So as my rowing was just an endurance sport, despite the fact that I was training six days a week, my body deteriorated. And now we know that in order to be physically active in old age, you must do muscle training – and I don’t just mean resistance training, I mean hypertrophy training – which means training the muscles to exhaustion or failure."
The nonagenarian informs me of the importance of protein supplements and a growth-stimulating amino acid called leucine. He explains how little muscle older people possess, and that ingesting supplements is the only way to regain the mass you have lost. "Now," begins Eugster, "did you know that from the age of about 50, everybody loses around one to two per cent of muscle mass every year? So that by the time you’re 85 or so, you might have lost up to 50 per cent of your muscles."
With weightlifting and intensive interval training now part of Eugster's daily routine, his muscles have returned in force. His newest passion however, is running.
"It was last year, in August that – for the very first time in my life – I decided to do some sprinting. Now, you must realise, that at school I was a hopeless runner. In cricket, for example, I was always the wicket keeper because I was so slow and in rugby I was always the full-back so I didn’t have to run so much and, of course, rowing was ideal because I didn’t have to run at all.
"But I decided that I should start something completely new, because I wanted to show that it is possible in old age to start something new – even if you’ve never displayed a talent for it before."
Over the past two years, Eugster has burst onto the over-95s sprinting scene on the Masters Athletics circuit, breathing new life into the class and his competition. His heart has settled down, and some of his grey hairs, he says, are even growing out brown again. Today will see the 96-year old try to secure one more record for his collection at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Lyon.
"It’s the indoor 100m and I’m in the 95+ age group," he enthuses, "and I’m running against the holder of the world record – and in my mind I’m expecting to be thrashed. But I’m certainly going to do everything I can to give him a run for his money."
Charles Eugster's optimism and tenacity truly shines through. His drive and ambition for someone of his age is outstanding: he tells me that "in the future, I think I'd like to try the 400m" – a statement of complete sincerity from the near-centenarian.
"The point is that what most people of 70, 80 or even 90 don’t seem to realise that you can completely rebuild your body at any age and you can start a new life at any age. The only problem is that at the current time nobody seems to offer retraining for older people. You see, what is happening now is people believe you can expect so many healthy years, and so many dependency years – which most people think start around 60 or 65. So what’s happening is as we get older and older and older, we are not adding healthy years, but rather dependency years. And that is killing us, both physically and financially."
Eugster has no time for those who lie down and accept the ageing process without a fight. He is constantly seeking new ways to stay healthy, both physically and mentally, and his views on the matter almost amount to a manifesto. "From my point of view," he almost bellows, "retirement is a financial disaster and health catastrophe. We must get rid of retirement, we must re-educate older people so they can get new jobs and rebuild their bodies so they can start new lives. And it is possible!"
It's hard to argue with that, when the man himself is living proof.