Updated at 5:30 p.m. June 25, 2014
She was 95 and set dozens of world age-group records in track and field — including 15 in the past few months. She was the oldest female high jumper in history and also specialized in throws including the shot put, hammer and javelin. She had hoped to take up pole vault.
Her passing was first reported on masterstrack.com — a website operated by La Mesa blogger Ken Stone, a Times of San Diego contributing editor.
She died early Tuesday in the Palliative Care Unit at Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver, according to her track team.
“Family and friends had a bedside vigil for the 2 1/2 days she was unconscious but alive,” Grierson said. “No one was with her at the precise moment she died, at 1 a.m. Not even a nurse. I think she planned it that way. She was a public figure but ultimately very private. This was a moment between her and her god.”
Grierson — the award-winning writer of “What Makes Olga Run?” — said a major blood vessel feeding Kotelko’s brain ruptured Saturday night.
“Blood bled into brain tissue and caused severe swelling,” he said. “Doctors say she would have lost consciousness immediately — zero suffering. It was — albeit premature and shocking — the perfect way to go out. She left nothing significant undone or undreamed. Gerontologists talk about ‘squaring the curve’ — i.e., living life ablaze with little or no decline toward the end, and then an abrupt demise.”
Prayers for Kotelko are set for 7 p.m. July 2 at St Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, 550 W. 14th Ave., Vancouver, with funeral services there at 10 a.m. July 3.
Competing as recently as late May, the West Vancouver resident held 34 age-group world records — 15 outdoors and 19 indoors, according to World Masters Athletics, the international governing body.
Born March 2, 1919, Kotelko was one of 11 children of Ukrainian immigrant farmers in Saskatchewan. She became a teacher and taught in a one-room schoolhouse.
“Her marriage broke up while she was pregnant with her second child,” said her Wikipedia profile. “She moved to British Columbia to live with her sister. She raised her two children, Nadine and Lynda, and earned a college degree in night classes.”
In fact, she left her drunkard husband, John Kotelko, in 1953 after he put a blade to her throat, Grierson wrote. She had an 8-year-old girl and was pregnant with another child.
As a youngster, she played only baseball. After retirement from teaching in 1984, she took up slow-pitch softball.
“She gave up her place on the softball team to a 55-year-old and took up track and field because it would take advantage of the running and throwing skills she had developed playing softball,” Wikipedia said.
At 77, she started training for track and field, and set her first world records at a 1999 world masters meet in Gateshead, England. Ten years later, at the World Masters Games in Sydney, Australia, she set world records in the hammer throw and 100-meter dash.
She carried the Olympic torch in 2010 before the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
As noted by Grierson in a 2010 New York Times Magazine article and later his 2014 book, Kotelko’s body and mind have been studied by researchers at several Canadian universities.
Quoting Russ Hepple, a University of Calgary physiologist and an expert in aging muscle, Grierson wrote: “Given her rather impressive retention of muscle mass, one would guess that she has some kind of resistance.”
He said that in investigating that resistance, researchers hoped to better understand how to stall the natural processes of aging.
Kotelko’s habits included getting up in the middle of the night to roll over a wine bottle, doing Japanese puzzles to keep her mind sharp and perfecting her 1930s high jump technique.
“As far as I knew, I was the first single mom in the history of the world,” she tells Bruce.
In late March, Kotelko traveled to Budapest for the World Masters Indoor Athletics Championships. Lacking competition, she won 10 gold medals. But she set nine world records.
Grierson’s book revealed that Kotelko had osteoporosis (but doctor told her: “Don’t let anybody tell you not to do [masters track].”
She was found to have a cancerous tumor of unknown age in her right lung (but “Honestly, I’m not letting it worry me,” she said). Olga opted to do nothing.
In mid-January, Grierson wrote Stone: “Olga’s cancer — if that’s indeed what it is — is not growing. Last they saw the doctors, a month or so ago, they sort of shrugged and said, ‘Come see us in six months.’ Olga’s strategy of doing nothing and staying positive seems to be powerful medicine, at least for now. She’s not letting it worry her, anyway.”
Canadian documentary filmmaker Brandy Yanchyk included Kotelko in a film about seniors pushing the limits called “Grey Glory.”
“To celebrate the life of our dear friend, Rogers’ OMNI TV is going to air my new documentary … July 5 and 6th across Canada,” Yanchyk said. “Olga inspired me to make the film and she is one of the main characters. It was made in English and there is also a Ukrainian version.
In recent years, Kotelko has also been interviewed by CBC Radio, CBC TV, Global TV, CTV, the BBC and the Daily Telegram of London. Earlier this month, she was interviewed by Aljazeera TV for a future program on older athletes.
Les Fowler, president of the Greyhounds Masters Track & Field Club in Canada, called team member Kotelko (since 2010) an “ambassador for track and field for children and adults of all ages.”
“Olga had a passion for competition and a hunger for life,” Fowler said. “She set a wonderful example to athletes and nonathletes locally, nationally and worldwide of how to live a healthy and active lifestyle and how to compete fairly. She was an inspiration to all who met her or who had the privilege to compete with her.”
Fowler recalled her bright eyes and keen sense of humor.
“She loved to share little stories with us and she was always quick to share a smile,” he said. “We will miss her dearly.”
Christa Bortignon, 77, was a training mate of Kotelko’s and IAAF World’s Best Masters Female Athlete in 2013.
She said: “I am still in shock. … Last Saturday, when I drove by her house on my way to practice, a firetruck was just leaving but the ambulance was still there. Not wanting to intrude, I did not stop.”
On Monday morning, I noticed that her car was gone so I thought, Olga is OK, and she drove to another of her many activities. Last Tuesday, she called me because she wanted to participate in our new masters clinics in our small community. She sounded very chipper and excited about having a masters track group close to her home.
The last time I spoke to her in person was June 14 at the Langley Track meet. It was very cold, rainy and windy and we both decided not to continue with the events. We have the BC Masters Championships this weekend and we were hoping for great weather. She will be missed by all. Without her, I would not have been involved in master track and field.
In the wake of Grierson’s book, reviewed by many major newspapers and featured on NBC’s “Today” show, Kotelko wrote her own with the help of Roxanne Davies. Called “Olga: The O.K. Way to a Healthy, Happy Life,” it was just starting to be promoted.
“Growing old happens whether we like it or not,” she said, “so why not make the best of these years?”
Grierson, a middle-ager who took inspiration from Kotelko’s example and began running, said Olga “squared the curve with a ruler. It was a real gift to get to know her. She changed my life, for sure.”
He said he last spoke to her Monday.
“We had just recorded some audio segments for an address I have to give [Thursday] at an aging conference,” Grierson said. “She called to say maybe we should rerecord one of them — it was good but not great; she thought she could do better. Fitting.”
Kotelko is survived by a daughter, Lynda Rabson; son-in-law, Richard Rabson; and two grandchildren — Alesa and Matthew.
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