Like fine wine – Eventers get better with age

Andrew Nicholson on Avebury winning the 2014 Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials for the third year in a row. CREDIT: Libby Law COPYRIGHT: LIBBY LAW PHOTOGRAPHY - NZL

At the ripe old age of 30, many professional athletes are already retired or certainly on the downside of their competitive careers. The majority of elite athletes can not keep pace with the physical demands of their sport into the third decade of their lives.

Retirement from sport usually sooner than later
For many athletes, retirement is a concept that they do not wish to think about after training and sacrificing so much of their lives in pursuit of their dreams and victories. After achieving Olympic glory or failing to reach the pinnacle of their sport, athletes’ careers will eventually end, through age, injury or exhaustion. For most competitors, sadly the gig is over before or shortly after their 30th birthday.

Average retirement age for these popular sports:

  • NFL American Football: 30
  • NHL Hockey: 28.17
  • PFA (Soccer): 35
  • World Tennis: 27 men, 25.1 women
  • Olympic Swimming: 25.8 men, 21.6 women
  • Olympic Gymnast: 19

While Olympic hopefuls from many sports are hanging up their skates, framing their jerseys, and wiping away a tear reminiscing through their scrapbooks, eventers are just hitting their stride. At the age of 30, many eventers find their careers are just starting to take off.

Five years of four-star results show…master athletes dominate
In eventing, an encouraging story is emerging when it comes to the age of the competitors at the highest levels. After reviewing the results of the world’s four-star competitions from 2010 to 2014, we found that the average age of the top 10 finishers is 37.78.* Clearly, eventers tend to excel a bit later than athletes in other sports.

Although some eventers do produce competitive results in their twenties, the numbers show that the majority of eventers begin to flourish in their thirties. Last year, at the four-star competitions, winners triumphed from the age of 22 (Jessica Manson winner of Adelaide) to 53 (Andrew Nicholson winner of Burgley). Renowned top eventer Ingrid Klimke, finally won her first four-star competition at the age of 46. Getting older is not a detriment to success in eventing.

2010-2014 four-star rider age trivia

Average age of four-star winners:

  • 42.38

Average age of riders finishing in the top 10 by year:

  • 2010 – 37.95
  • 2011 – 37.63
  • 2012 – 36.96
  • 2013 – 40.2
  • 2014 – 36.1

Average age of riders finishing in the top 10 by event:

  • Adelaide – 33.06
  • Badminton – 36.61
  • Burghley – 39.99
  • Luhmuhlen – 39.14
  • Pau – 37.94
  • Rolex – 38.94

Youngest rider to finish in the top 10:

  • Isabel English, 19-years-old at Adelaide 2014 in 8th place

Oldest rider to finish in the top 10:

  • Mark Todd, 57-years-old at Burghley 2013

Youngest rider to win:

  • Jessica Manson, 22-years-old at Adelaide 2014

Oldest rider to win:

  • Mark Todd, age 55-years-old at Badminton 2011

Rider with most wins: Tied with 6 wins each:

  • Andrew Nicholson, 53,
  • William Fox-Pitt, 45

Rider with most top 10 finishes: Tied with 23 top 10 finishes each

  • Andrew Nicholson, 53
  • William Fox-Pitt, 45

Woman with most top 10 finishes:

  • Mary King, 53 with 10

Longevity in eventing through experience and fitness
To compete at the four-star level, an eventer must be in top physical condition but he/she also has the responsibility of the preparation of a horse. The relationship of a rider and a horse is complex and can take years to develop. Mileage in the saddle and years training horses, gives senior riders an edge. Drawing on experience when making a split second decision on the back of a horse – whether it is in dressage, show jumping or cross-country – is an advantage that grows as you age.

How many times have you heard a fellow rider reminisce about a horse from their past and say, “I wish I had that horse now.” We all recognize that with every year, every ride and every horse we learn more. This never-ending process can take us into our sixth and seventh decades competing and enjoying our sport. Eventer Mark Todd, 58 and show jumper Ian Miller, 68, are both planning to represent their nations at the 2016 Olympics.

The good news is that across the board in all sports, athletes are retiring later than they did 20 years ago. Master athletes are becoming more common as a result of advancements in training and diet regimens.

Research is showing that we are capable of preserving both muscle mass and strength with lifelong physical activity. A 2011 study  examined 40 athletes aged 40 to 81 to answer the question, “What really happens to our muscles as we age if we are chronically active?” Subjects in the study trained consistently (about four to five times a week) for competitions in various sports such as cycling, running, and swimming. The study also demonstrated the retention of muscle strength as we age (pictured below, MRI scans of quadriceps). The athletes studied, showed that peak torque measurements did not decline until ages 60-69, and no significant difference in peak torque measurements were observed among the 60, 70, and 80 year-old groups. So, although peak torque showed a decline around 60 years, there was little decline in strength with further aging.

Muscle strength and mass  can be maintained through chronic exercise, even into your seventies. So keep riding.

Muscle strength and mass can be maintained through chronic exercise, even into your seventies. So keep riding.

Deterioration in performance is inevitable, but the rate of decline may be much slower than once believed. The increasing amount of research and results from master athletes, continues to support the theory that we can all make gains, reap great health benefits and maintain a high level of fitness over the age of 40.

Recently, when Andrew Nicholson, 53 was asked about retirement he said, “I love doing it and I cannot see any reason why I should stop. I have spent years learning my trade and I might not be as supple or as sharp as I used to be, but I feel that my knowledge and experience makes up for it.”

When an accomplished eventer like Andrew Nicholson is in his fifth decade and is not considering retirement, why should you? Never let your age stop you from pursuing greater athletic goals. Success is possible, regardless of your age. Be patient, keep training, keep learning, keep competing.


*The statistics include the top 10 riders from all six four-star competitions held from 2010 to 2014.
6 (competitions) x 10 (top 10 finishes) x 5 (years) = 300 – 10 (Badminton cancelled in 2012) = 290 top ten finishes included in the stats

Additional information:
Master Athletes: A Model for Healthy Aging


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