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Age-defying athletes share their secrets

Three sports. Three athletes with legendary longevity. Three life lessons.


This article is a part of Studio/B’s Aging Strong series, exploring how individuals, from athletes to entrepreneurs, have navigated the challenges of aging—and the habits that can help others age strong too. 


For many people, age begins to slow things down. They go for fewer runs, climb fewer mountains, and eventually find themselves watching great triumphs more often than celebrating them. This process can feel inevitable, and ultimately it is.

But some people push back. They run marathons at 61 and swim the English Channel at 60. They fight for a title after turning 40. They build good habits that don’t end when they turn 30. And getting on in years … well, they see that as just a chance to push a little harder and find out how long they can stay in the game.

William Ryerson/Globe StaffBoston, MA – 4/18/1983: Joan Benoit crosses the finish line at the 87th Boston Marathon on April 18, 1983

Joan Benoit Samuelson
1984: First women’s Olympic marathon Gold medalist
World-recording-setting marathon runner

Joan Benoit Samuelson set a Boston Marathon women’s course record and American women’s marathon record in 1979, at age 21, when she finished the race with a time of 2:35:15.

In 2019, 40 years later, she ran the Boston Marathon again. Her race time that year? 3:05:18—only about 30 minutes off from her first run of the course.

Samuelson credits her daily lifestyle with much of her long-term success.

Evan Richman/Globe StaffBoston, MA – 4/20/08: Joan Benoit Samuelson greets fans after the U.S. Olympic Trials Women’s Marathon

“My physical health,” Samuelson says, “benefits from everything I do.” She doesn’t just exercise when training. Samuelson stays healthy in the way she spends time with friends and family, taking advantage of the woods and lakes around her home. She stays healthy through her diet, growing fresh vegetables in her garden whenever possible.

Running and fitness are not breaks from Samuelson’s daily routine. They are her routine.

“I run the way I feel on that day,” she says. “My best speed work happens when I paint myself into a corner with time. When all of a sudden, I realize I have to be somewhere or do something. And I look at my watch and I say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get out the door now. And I’ve got to run fast.’ And then of course I always try to squeeze an extra mile into it.”

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Patricia Gallant-Charette
2017: Oldest woman to swim the English Channel
2018: Oldest woman to complete the Open Water Triple Crown

In 2017, Patricia Gallant-Charette, at age 66, set the then-record as the oldest woman in history to swim the English Channel

For Patricia Gallant-Charette, the journey to Calais began with a loss.

When she was 46 years old, Gallant-Charette’s brother, Robby, died of a heart attack. As a memorial her teenage son decided to swim the open water Peaks to Portland. Then he asked her to join.

“At that time, at the age of 46, I considered myself a little too old to be starting a sport,” she says, “because most of these top athletes started in their teens and their twenties.”

The day of the event Gallant-Charette says, “I can remember standing on Peaks Island and I was overwhelmed. There I was, grey haired, overweight, and I said, ‘Pat what have you gotten yourself into? [But] you’re here as a tribute to Robby. Just get out there and do this and it will be the last time you ever do an open water swim.’ But as I was swimming across Casco Bay something clicked.”

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That “something” stayed and today Gallant-Charette continues taking on some of open water’s toughest elements, facing her fears, and setting records.

Gallant-Charette didn’t compete in her first water swimming race until she was 46

“I had such a concern on my very first attempt at the English Channel,” she says. “I tried so hard for that, and I recognized that it might not be successful. I remember thinking, ‘well, how will I react to that? Will I just throw the towel in and never do another marathon swim again?’ The decision to try again was made before I even set out on that swim.”

On her first attempt across the English Channel, Gallant-Charette had to quit due to strong tides. Her second attempt was canceled due to bad weather. On her third attempt, though, Gallant-Charette made it. She crossed the Channel in 17 hours and 55 minutes at age 66, setting the then-record as the oldest woman in history to make the crossing.

For her, the secret to staying strong is no secret at all. She keeps swimming out of sheer power of will.

Rodney Toney
2019: Ring 4 Boxing Hall of Fame inductee
Four-time New England Regional Champion
National title contender
29 overall career wins

“I used to fight on the streets all the time, because I lived in a prejudiced neighborhood,” says Rodney Toney. “Four black families lived in a 1,000 house project, so it was kind of rough.”

While most fighters drop out by their late 20s or early 30s, Toney competed for a national title past his 40th birthday

For Toney, competition is about the head and the heart. While most fighters drop out by their late 20s or early 30s, Toney competed for a national title past his 40th birthday. To him boxing isn’t just a chance to grab three minutes of spotlight. It’s a connection with his past, a throughline that runs from his Hyde Park childhood and his father’s own career in the ring.

Toney’s career began with a flourish when he won the Golden Gloves, an amateur boxing competition—just two weeks after taking up the sport. After knocking down his first opponent Toney, then a cocky 20-year-old, began to celebrate.

“I thought it would be easy to win the Golden Gloves and I took it lightly,” Toney says. “And then the next round I almost lost.”

Toney continues to coach at The Ring Boxing Club in Boston

But he didn’t. Toney won this competition and many more after that until stepping back to coach two decades later. This first lesson, however, has stayed with him. Even today as Toney coaches up-and-coming boxers, he looks for the spirit someone brings into the ring.

“It’s the heart, really,” he says. “If they [can] take the punch or if they listen afterward when you tell them this is what you need them to do. If the heart’s there.”

Sometimes the secret is that there’s no secret at all

Staying physically and mentally fit into middle age and beyond takes a combination of countless factors. Genetics and health play a huge role. Some people are simply predisposed to keep their strength as they get older. Luck matters too. But according to Dr. Brian McKeon, a sports medicine specialist at New England Baptist Hospital, the athletes who carry on year after year tend to have two things in common: psychology and injury.

“You wonder, ‘how this guy can do this and that guy can do that,’” McKeon says. Part of it is staying healthy. “When you get older, you just can’t recover from injuries.”

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But, he says, “some athletes as they get older, they really stabilize their emotions. Their psychological skills are just tremendous.”

The people who stay fit day after day, the ones who never lose sight of their goals and who keep setting new ones, they’re the ones who will seem to somehow stay competitive year after year.

Because ultimately, there’s no “somehow” about it. “You bank those habits,” McKeon says, “you’re going to reap those rewards.”

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This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.