LYON, France — Flo Meiler, an 81-year-old from Shelburne, Vt., recently broke the world record in the heptathlon for the women’s 80-84 age group with an age-graded score of 5,730 at the World Masters Athletics Championships http://www.world-masters-athletics.org/news/563-2015-wma-championship-results-in-lyon-france here.
“I’m on cloud nine right now,” Meiler said, still breathing heavily after the 800-meter run, the dreaded last event of the heptathlon.
When I was younger, I thought that competition was about achieving the peak performance of a lifetime. I was 21 when I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and retired from the heptathlon. I hung up my spikes, convinced I had done the best I would ever do.
But I came to Lyon because I’d been wondering if there was something more to an athletic career. I started photographing masters track and field in 2007, curious at first to understand what motivated older athletes, and then intrigued by the competitive spirit I saw in them.
In masters track and field, athletes 35 and older compete in five-year age divisions. In the multi, or combined, events, athletes compete in several running, jumping and throwing events over two days.
Masters women compete in the heptathlon (80-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meters, long jump, javelin and 800 meters), and men compete in the decathlon (100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 80-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500 meters).
Events are scored on an international scale that assigns point values to each event performance, with the final score a tally of all points. The scores of masters multi-event athletes are age-graded so that points can be interpreted as comparable across age divisions.
Meiler’s score was a record-setting point total but remains unofficial until ratified by World Masters Athletics, the association designated by track and field’s world governing body.
Meiler joined more than 8,000 athletes from 99 countries
who registered to compete this month in track and field events (as well as racewalking, marathon, cross–country, half–marathon and combined events) at the world championships, which take place every two years.
I decided to spend the week of my 40th birthday (Aug. 5) photographing women and men over 60 competing in the heptathlon and decathlon, watching them reset my expectations of age.
“You see?” Meiler said. “It’s never too late. I’m 81 years old, and look what I did. I didn’t sit in my rocking chair and say, ‘I got a pain here and a pain there, and I can’t do anything.’ I get out there, and I work out the pain.”
Pengxue Su, 88, of Beijing, the oldest decathlete at the world meet, was competing in his first decathlon, completing a series of what he called “iron man” events. He had already done a triathlon and many marathons and wanted to cross the decathlon off the list.
Pengxue said he had first read about masters track in the newspaper and had been inspired by the athletes, much older than he was at the time.
“I thought, ‘I have to go until I am that age,’ ” he said. “And now I am that age.”
Angela Jimenez is freelance photographer based in Minneapolis, where she she works on assignment and on documentary projects. These photos are part of her larger years-long project “Racing Age” about older track & field athletes. Along with freelancing for The New York Times, Ms. Jimenez is a contract photographer with the Getty Images creative department.