Age, Determination, and the Olympics: An Interview With Resident Butt Kicker, Cherie Gruenfeld


This week, the world watched in wonder as 12-time Olympic medalist Dara Torres attempted to make her record sixth Olympic team at the jaw-dropping age of 45. While she just missed qualifying – finishing fourth with a time of 24.82 – her performance was nonetheless staggering. It got me thinking about our Resident Butt Kicker, Cherie Gruenfeld, who at the age of 68 continues to compete at the highest levels of Ironman competition. What, I wondered, is the secret to these athletes for whom age appears to be nothing more than a number? Here’s a snapshot of my conversation with Cherie.

Let’s start with Dara. Did you watch the Trials? What did you think of her attempt?

I was glued to my TV during the trials. I actually was unaware that Dara was making another attempt at an Olympic team, but was thrilled when I heard it. It’s quite a visual when you picture her racing in previous Olympics when some of the girls in the lanes next to her weren’t even born. Of course, I identify with her somewhat since most of the people in my sport are much younger. But still, my playing field, unlike Dara’s, is pretty level. I compete with women within 5 years of me. Some of the kids Dara competes with are nearly 30 years younger than she.

I have such admiration for her. First of all, her generation of athlete is now coaching, in the broadcasting booth or simply moved on to an easier life. Dara still has the drive and the will to excel which means working her butt off when she could be living a perfectly nice life resting on her laurels. Secondly, she’s fearless. Do you know what it takes to put yourself in a race that’s won or lost in hundredths of a second? That takes pure guts at any time. But when you’re 45 and you’re putting yourself under that pressure with kids who you know are in their physical prime, it takes strength of mind that is almost impossible to imagine. And she’s a beautiful lady. She looks great and she handles herself, win or lose, with great dignity.

A point that was very interesting to me was that, when asked if she’d won an individual gold in 2008, if she’d be there at the 2012 trials. Without a moment’s hesitation she said, “No, I wouldn’t be here.”

That’s interesting. Do you feel the same way about coming in second?

Yeah – I completely understand Dara “needing” to get that individual gold medal in order to call it a career. Having been in a game where that’s the ultimate reward and to face walking away from it having established a very worthy legacy but without the big prize, has to be very difficult. I can truly understand that being the driving factor in her coming back for one last try. That’s exactly what I would have done, if I were in her shoes. And when it didn’t work for her and she knew it was over for good, she was magnificent. She handled, what had to be, a huge disappointment with great dignity.

Do you envision what “retirement” looks like for you? Is there a concept of “resting on your laurels”, or do you intend to be the second coming of Sister Madonna Buder?

I absolutely do NOT intend to be the second coming of Sister Madonna Buder, although I think she’s astonishing. I’ve said all along that I will do this as long as I can still “race”. On the day when I find myself just trying to make the cut-off times, I’m outta there. I guess that, at this point in my racing career, just crossing the finish line isn’t what drives me. I want to feel that I can still beat younger kids. I want to feel that I can still have the perfect day and do it faster than before. I want to be able to go out, push hard and come home looking like a real athlete. And I’m smart enough to know that one day, I won’t be able to do these things. And at that time, I’ll retire. I hope I can do it with as much dignity as Dara. But I don’t envision retirement as resting on my laurels. I see it as pretty much what I’m doing today: Coaching younger folks to do Ironman racing and working with my Exceeding Expectation kids. And maybe I’ll still have the stuff to do shorter triathlons just for fun. That sounds like a great retirement to me, but I’m not looking for it any time soon.

Dara talked a lot about how much her body has changed in terms of recovery. She said her body simply doesn’t recover in the same way it used to – even four years ago. Can you describe your own experience with a body that’s no longer 20 years old? How has your body shifted in your 40’s, 50’s, and now into your 60’s?

Well, there’s no trying to deny it, the body does change and its need/demand for rest is the biggest part of that change. I will get to what you asked about my personal progression, but let me veer off for just a moment. Many folks, as they move through their 50s and 60s equate the need for additional rest with the need to back off on the level of intensity of their workouts. I’ve learned that’s a fallacy. In fact, there are some very good scientific things that happen to the aging body when we continue to push it hard. Now, it’s worth noting that the level of intensity that one is capable of changes as we age. For example, I can no longer run as fast as I could when I was 50. But I still get the same benefit when I run hard at an 8 min. pace today as I did when I was 50 and ran hard at a 6:30 min pace. So the bottom line is: Keep pushing hard. The body responds and, if you then give it the appropriate rest, you can continue to stay strong and fast.

Now, how has my body shifted in my 40’s, 50’s and 60’s? I wasn’t an athlete until 48, so I didn’t notice any shift. I was having fun getting faster. In my 50’s I continued to get faster and honestly didn’t notice any need to change my recovery routines. In fact, my Ironman PR was in my mid-fifties. I could work hard for 3 days, do a recovery workout on the fourth day and do three more hard days followed by a day off. In my early 60’s things continued until about 64. At that point, I began to find that I couldn’t do three back-to-back-to-back hard days and get quality workouts. And I also realized that it took two recovery days after two hard days. When I made that adjustment, I found that I could keep the level of intensity in my workouts. The thing I’m now discovering, as I move through my 60’s (and am getting dangerously close to my 70’s), is that everything is just harder. This sport has always been about suffering, but the workouts are just harder than they used to be. I have a workout I do where I can occasionally hit a 7:15 pace for one mile. And it’s hard work. It’s a killer if I let myself think about the fact that I ran a marathon at a 7:15 pace “back in the day”.

One of the things I wondered about Dara is if she would compete at Masters events into her retirement. Does an elite athlete have a need to compete, no matter what the level? Or is it too frustrating, knowing you can no longer compete at the very top levels?

I can’t speak for Dara, but I’d be very surprised to see her compete at Masters swim events – at least in the near future. But I don’t think that’s because it would be too frustrating for her. She seems to me to be one who could relax and enjoy mixing things up regardless of her level of competence. The reason I wouldn’t expect to see her at Masters swimming events is because, if you recall, she retired once before. She was done with swimming. I think what brought her back was the desire for the individual gold. Now that it’s no longer a possibility, I would expect her to move on to other areas of interest. But what do I know?

I think an elite athlete has the need to stay active and fit and they’ll always start working for the win when put into a competitive situation. Some like to compete in races, but that’s not real competition to them. But they’ll always try to perform well and that usually means winning.

Have you thought about switching to swimming only over time, to be a single sport athlete at the Masters level?

Since I grew up before Title IX, I never had the opportunity to compete as a kid. So, for me and my generation, we still have a lot of competitive juices and want to beat the brains out of our competition even though we are all passing through our 60’s. But, honestly, I don’t think I’d enjoy becoming a single sport Masters athlete. Even running, which was my first love, doesn’t hold that appeal for me. I enjoy the variety of multi-sport. During the off-season, I compete in running races quite often and once in a while biking races. Swim meets don’t really appeal to me – too much sitting around waiting. All my single sport racing is done in pursuit of training for a triathlon – but I always try to win.

Since her attempt to qualify for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Dara’s rallying cry has been, “Age is just a number.” You’re competing at the very top level of your sport – a sport I would argue is about 50,000 times more grueling than swimming one length of the pool (with all due respect to Dara’s amazing accomplishments) – and you’re more than 20 years older than Dara. How do you sustain this level of commitment and performance, year after year? Is age just a number?

Yeah – I’ll pick up her rally cry, “Age is just a number.” I’m often asked how I maintain my commitment to performance year after year. As I mentioned before, I didn’t have the opportunity to compete in any sports as a kid. So I’m still all hyped up by the opportunity to compete and win.

But there’s more to it than that – I think. But I also think it’s a pretty simply answer: I get great satisfaction from taking on a challenge and accomplishing it. I’m big into setting goals, so setting tough athletic goals and busting my butt to accomplish them is right up my alley. I’ve honestly never suffered the let-down that people speak of coming after a major accomplishment. Shortly after crossing the finish line of an “A” goal, I’m planning the next one. And it helps that I’m kind of charting new territory here. There are plenty of talented ladies coming behind me who will easily smash my records. But with each passing year, if I’m able to finish well, I’m doing something that few before me have done. And the jury is still out on how long this can be done. That’s pretty motivating.

About Dawn

Dawn is one of the rarest breeds of Southern Californians — a native. She has nearly 20 years of experience marketing technology, which means she's a nerd at heart (and we say that in the most loving way possible). When not at her day job as CMO of Boingo, Dawn spends time in a never-ending quest for the perfect margarita. (Rocks/salt, natch.)
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