7 Inspiring Olympians Who Prove Age Is Just a Number

By Sheryl Kraft
August 02, 2021

Athletes who compete in the Olympic Games are the best of the best; finely-honed elites who reach the pinnacle of physical performance in their sport.

And while conventional wisdom tells us that younger athletes are the ones with the stamina, strength, endurance, and grit needed to compete in the Olympics, there are plenty who have proven that the competition is not only for the young. Some have been competing for their countries at the Olympics for decades—longer than the younger athletes have been alive. (Divers can be as young as 14 to compete, while gymnasts and track and field competitors can start at 16.)

Here are seven amazing female Olympic athletes ages 39-plus who are impressing us all at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics while also breaking the age barrier. Plus, what we can learn from these strong women.

Mary Hanna, 66

Hanna, an Australian equestrian, started riding at age 4 and is the oldest member of the Australian team. This year’s Olympic Games are her sixth; her first were in Atlanta in 1996. Along the way, Hanna, a breeder, coach, and horse trainer, competed in other events, too, like the FEI World Equestrian Games and the FEI World Cup Pacific League.

Nino Salukvadze, 52

Salukvadze’s first of nine Olympics dates back to 1988, when Salukvadze, now representing the country of Georgia, competed in shooting in Seoul for the Soviet Union. The sport of shooting requires staying cool under pressure (or, as put it, storing “deep reserves of mental strength”) and tremendous skill.

Salukvadze won her first medal when she was 19. Then, in 2016, she partnered with her 18-year-old son Tsotne Machavariani as the first mother/son duo to compete in the Olympics. She’s reportedly hanging up her rifle and won’t go on to a 10th Olympics.

Amber Neben, 46

Neben is almost a decade older than her next-oldest U.S.A. Cycling teammate, but that certainly isn’t stopping her. She wrote on Instagram: “Age is a descriptor and not a definer. It's a number not a limiter. I own it and love it!” Neben finished fifth in her Olympic time trial, which is her best place ever.

Moreover, Neben is a skin cancer survivor and told NBC, “It really just taught me to not take the next day for granted, not take my health for granted, and to really take care of my skin.”

Oksana Chusovitina, 46

Think Olympic gymnastics is just for teenagers? Chusovitina, who began gymnastics at age 7 and has been competing for three decades, flips that theory on its head. Called an “ageless wonder,” the gold and silver medalist from Uzbekistan is the oldest woman to ever compete in Olympic gymnastics, a sport where an athlete is considered to be a veteran at age 24.

Despite experiencing challenges through the years—including shoulder and back surgery, a torn Achilles tendon, and a leg and foot injury—Chusovitina continues to return and land on her feet.

Sue Bird, 40

Forty isn’t old by everyday standards, but in terms of basketball competition at the Olympics, Bird’s age qualifies her as the oldest U.S. basketball player in the 2021 Tokyo Games, with her Olympic footprint dating back to Athens in 2004.

Her hope is to win a fifth Olympic gold medal—yes, she’s already dripping in gold, with four under her belt. Bird says it was while watching a live U.S. team exhibition game at the age of 14 that she realized her ultimate goal of competing in the Olympics.

Carli Lloyd, 39

As this soccer star’s experience with the Olympics dates back to 2008, this will be her fourth Olympics. Lloyd has been described as “ultra-competitive” and always striving to improve.

“I don’t want to be remembered for one World Cup final… I want to be remembered for my whole career,” she told Lloyd is the oldest player ever to compete on the U.S. women’s national team, and is only one of three players (male or female) to have played in more than 300 international matches.

April Ross, 39

This beach volleyball player is a three-time Olympian and a two-time Olympic medalist. At her California high school, she competed in indoor volleyball, track and field, and basketball. Despite her seemingly easygoing personality, Ross is driven, competitive, and powerful, and credits her strength and determination to her mother’s battle with an incurable form of breast cancer.

We’ll be rooting for Ross and her partner, Alix Klineman, in their upcoming matches.

6 Lessons We Can Learn from Olympic Athletes

While it’s true that some of us are blessed with good genes and natural athleticism and still may never make it to the Olympics, that doesn’t mean we can’t reach our own version of success. Here are six things we can learn from this year’s winning Olympic women.

1. Extreme Focus Is a Learned Skill

Often, it’s not just the physical skill that sets Olympians apart, but the mental skill, as well, according to scientists from Johns Hopkins University. While some athletes are born with brains wired for winning, brains can also adapt after intense training, enabling the athlete to make split-second decisions and block out distractions when they need to move their muscles quickly (like while skiing down a steep slope or negotiating a triple axel). You, too, can improve your focus by eliminating multitasking, reducing distractions, and investing time in mastering this learned skill.

2. A Stable Mindset Can Be Honed

The same scientists found that athletes most likely to succeed are those who can keep their cool when the stakes are high. Rather than get “amped up for high gains or really depressed for losses,” as Johns Hopkins researcher Vikram Chib described in a press release, these athletes can maintain stable reward activity, and not choke under pressure.

“Keep calm and carry on,” wrote Hanna in a memoir about her life called A Long Rein.” Yoga is a great way to achieve not only physical stability, but mental stability, as well. In fact, Bird has incorporated it into her nightly wind-down routine, according to an interview with GQ.

3. Age Doesn’t Define You

To many elite athletes, age is just a number, and they don’t let it hold them back from what they are capable of. “Gymnastics has enough numbers,” Chusovitina told “I don’t need to look at my age.”

Whether it’s a job change, a new workout routine, or a fashion you want to flaunt, don’t think that you can’t go for it because of your age.

4. Visualize It to Help You Achieve It

If you think it, it can happen. And for many athletes, visualizing the end goal helps them get there. Saber fencing champ Mariel Zagunis told The Washington Post that she pictures her matches before they happen in order to prep herself, picturing every potential thing that could happen in play while she’s on a plane or otherwise unoccupied.

Chusovitina also reportedly incorporates visualization and mental preparation into her daily practices. Perhaps that’s given her the determination to fight through obstacles and discouragement from her mother who initially didn’t want her to pursue gymnastics. According to her bio on, Chusovitina has said she “wanted to prove to her that I was not doing it in vain… and I eventually succeeded in that.”

5. Put in the Time

“You have to love what you do in order to put in the roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that Anders Ericsson’s famous research indicates is needed to become an expert,” Shane Murphy, Ph.D., former head of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology Department, told the American Psychological Association.

And these athletes would probably all agree. “There is no secret to my success. It is just a lot of hard work and dedication," said Salukvadze in a YouTube video in 2017, according to her profile on

6. Take Care of Your Body

It’s important that athletes keep a well-rounded training schedule to decrease the risk of overuse injuries and strains. (Something that is a possibility for anyone if they overdo their workouts.)

Getting enough sleep is another healthy habit that can help anyone perform their best. Bird reportedly gets eight to nine hours a night, despite a busy training schedule.

Whether you’re working on a big work project or training for a 10K, your body and brain will be primed for optimal performance if you’re eating a healthy, well-rounded diet that includes plenty of protein, fruits, veggies, and whole grains.

“If I was content just eating pizza and drinking soda all day … that's obviously not going to be as effective as me sacrificing eating that crap and trying to eat healthier year after year,” Ross told ESPN in 2016, the same year she won a bronze medal.

You May Also Like: