'We Need To Fight The Stereotype': Photographer Captures Women Who Are Growing Old Competitively

"The negative messages about ageing are so pervasive in our culture, I think we all internalise at least some of them."

Alex Rotas is on a mission. At 66 years of age, she is no spring chicken. But ancient, past it, over the hill she is not- and neither are countless others. You are as old as you feel, and that is a sentiment which Alex is championing through her powerful photo series, 'Growing Old Competitively: Photographs of Masters Athletes'.

An athlete herself, competing in tennis tournaments internationally, this project is a labour of love which strives and succeeds in challenging all of the preconceived notions about what it means to be old,

I hope that my pictures do all the talking necessary. The senior athletes provide a different narrative to the dominant one of human frailty. And as such they perform an important service, as they make us think again about our wide-held beliefs.
The athletes show us what the ageing human body can do. And trust me, it can do awesome things!

The first time I saw a woman in her 90s compete in the long jump event, I was terrified as I watched her leap into the sand and then go forwards onto her wrists to catch her fall. Surely she's going to break them? She didn't. She fell forwards onto her wrists, dusted herself down and went back to have another attempt.

Accepting her own more mature status, however, didn't always sit so well with Alex,

I didn't find entering my 60s easy. It's taken me a while to realise that no wrinkle filler is ever going to work, no matter how expensive it is. Embracing my wrinkles is a work in progress.

The first few times I asked for a concessionary cinema ticket, I have to admit I was waiting for the cashier to ask for ID or to say "Surely not!" Did either of these ever happen? Sadly, no.

I'm hoping that my images really convey an opposite message. Do the women athletes in my photos have fewer wrinkles than other people of their age? No they do not. In fact sometimes they have more as they're out in the elements so much of the day. But they look wonderful: empowered, determined and absolutely brimming with life. And isn't that what matters?

Hildegund Buerkle, Germany, born 1934, on her way to gold medal position and a new world record in the women's 100m dash, 80-84 year old age group, at the European Veterans' Athletics Championships in Izmir, Turkey, August 2014. Her time was 18.16secs. This record has now been broken (which is what records are there for) and it now stands at 16.81secs.

It was only when Alex went looking for images of older people playing sport that she realised there was a gap in the market,

I thought there might be some interesting pictures to look at. But when I did a Google search, I came up with nothing. In fact the moment the words 'older people' went into my search I came up with the opposite: depressing images of poor elderly folk slumped in care home chairs. They looked disengaged, idle, bored and passive, anything but sporty.

That was when I thought gosh, there's a gap here. Maybe I could start taking some photos myself. I knew there were plenty of people still competing in their chosen sport well into their so-called 'old age'; they just didn't seem to be being documented.

Dorothy McLennan, Ireland, born 1935 and Brita Kiesheyer, Germany, born 1937, show why they carry on competing through their late 70s. They were taking part in the heptathlon event at the European Veterans' Athletics Championships in Izmir, Turkey, August 2014 - the only two competitors in their age group.

By taking it upon herself to capture these snapshots, Alex is helping to eradicate the belief that we should mourn old age and live in fear of our more mature years,

I was showing my pictures to a group of people in their 40s and 50s in London once and one of the women there was caring for her elderly mother with Alzheimer's. And this, coupled with the fact that she felt she was starting to enter an older age group herself made her very depressed.

She could see no light at the end of the tunnel for her mother and she felt that there was not a lot of light in the future she envisaged herself facing now either. Seeing pictures of joyful, active, determined and focused elders made her think again about how her own life could progress.

Marianne Maier, Austria, born 1942, shows her awesome style and physicality as she clears 1.08m in the high jump competition of the women's heptathlon, at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Lyon, 2015, winning the overall heptathlon event.

But this is not a mission which Alex can carry out on her own. It's a movement which needs to happen across the board, at both grassroots and government level,

We need to change our own preconceptions first of all. We have to stop overprotecting older people and worrying on their behalf. My own son urged me to "take care" as I was setting off for a run a couple of years ago. "You are getting on," he added, emphatically. Trust me, he hasn't said it again!

We also need to take onboard the truth that the kind of old age we're going to have depends very much on the foundations we build for it. So we need to exercise and eat well through our 30s, 40s and 50s, if we're to reap the benefits in our 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond.

And we need to spread the good news. If we see examples on social media of older people going for it, following their passions in whatever way they choose, let's share their stories. We need to replace the doom-and-gloom narrative with joyful stuff that doesn't get passed around enough. It's good for older people - but it's good for younger people too: old age isn't necessarily something to be scared of or to dread. It can be a time to set yourself new goals and new targets - be they world athletics records for your age group or simply learning a new skill or activity. We can carry on learning and growing till we are 100+!

Flo Meiler, USA, born 1934, leaps off the water barrier in the women's steeplechase competition, 80-84 year old age group, at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Lyon, 2015, setting a new world record for this event. She was the only woman in her age group competing in this grueling and challenging event.

Alex discussed how the government need to set their sights on working towards prevention more than anything else, funding activities and sport for those over the age of 50 or 60, as well as providing robust education for young people about the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle in their young adulthood, "It would be good if they stopped talking about the 'demographic time-bomb' that's ahead of us, and started rejoicing in the fact that we're living longer and potentially more healthily than ever before."

And her work has not gone unnoticed. Alex has been nominated as a finalist for the Be a Game Changer Awards for the Women's Sport Trust in the 'Imagery of the Year' Category. The accolades are designed to recognise those who are doing their very best to help progress women's sport, and Alex's photos have made a lasting impression.

You still have until the end of this week to vote for Alex, and we wish her the very best with her remarkable project.

Featured image: Vladylena Kokina, Ukraine, born 1926. This image was taken moments after Kokina ran a new world record for the women's 800m for her 85-59 year old age group, in 4:56.10, at the 2012 European Veterans Athletics Championships, in Zittau. Alex says, "This was one of the first international competitions I'd photographed and I was blown away watching this unassuming white-haired lady set a new world record in a tough middle-distance race on a blisteringly hot day. I was thrilled to be there to capture her utter joy and delight after she did it."

Abby Robinson

Abby is a writer for Pretty 52. She's an animation enthusiast, daydreams about roaming the wild with all her animal friends, and is failing to conquer her trainer addiction.

Next Up

arrow-down arrow-left arrow-right arrow-up camera clock close comment cursor email facebook-messenger facebook Instagram link new-window phone play share snapchat submit twitter vine whatsapp safari-pinned-tab