Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Redefining Human Limits: Bernard Hopkins, Ashton Eaton, Michael Phelps, and Steve Way

There have been some remarkable performances recently showing just how well 40 somethings can do in elite athletic competition.  Then there seem to be more and more startling performances in general.  There is also the issue of Michael Phelps coming back for his fifth Olympics and trying to add more medals to his total.   Finally, unknowns still come out of nowhere.  All of this seems to be redefining the limits of what is possible.


Bernard Hopkins

Last weekend 49 year old Bernard Hopkins unified the light-heavyweight (175 lbs, 78Kg) boxing title and now holds all of the titles in the alphabet soup of boxing.  Boxing is a crazy and some would say barbaric sport, but to fight 12 rounds you have to be in superb condition and the speed, coordination, timing, and footwork of great boxers are all outstanding.   I keep a list of great performances by older athletes and there have been some dominant performances by people in their late 30s and early 40s, and a number of people have done well at the highest level of their sport into their late 40s.  However, what Hopkins has done is incredible and I can’t think of anything that comes close.


Ashton Eaton

Speaking of anything that comes close, Olympic Decathlon champ and world record holder Ashton Eaton entered the 400m hurdles at the Mt. Sac Relays last weekend.  He ran 50.01 and got fourth.  This is a time that is at the edge of world class in arguably the toughest race in track and field.   Incredibly, Eaton essentially ran the race without ever really practicing it.  He is a superb high hurdler (13.35) and also excellent at the 400m (45.64), but to go out and blast a 50.01 is nuts.  Milt Campbell was a world record holder in the high hurdles, a gold medalist in the decathlon (1956, he got a silver in 52), state champ swimmer, and professional football player.  However, if Eaton becomes world class at the 400m hurdles, that will be truly out of this world.


Michael Phelps

Ashton Eaton may be “dabbling” in the 400m hurdles because he is “bored”, the other bored person appears to be Michael Phelps.  Phelps is coming back in an effort to add to 20 plus medals.  There was an analysis of “older swimmers” (Phelps will be 31 at the next Olympics) on the website.  The analysis pointed out that it is unusual for swimmers to do well past their mid-20s, and that rest of the field is catching up to times that Phelps posted during his peak.  All of this is true and would suggest that it will be hard for Phelps to medal again.

However, the era of large numbers of swimmers continuing into their late 20s and early 30s may just be starting.  Swimming was relatively late to fully professionalize and it is only recently that the financial incentives have been there to keep many people going past 25 or 26.  The other issue is that swimmers start to train very hard in their early teens and most are tired of the grind after 10 plus years.  Phelps seems to be settling into a pattern of 18 easy months post Olympics followed by a build up for the next Olympics.  He also does not have to swim 6 or 8 races in 2016 and could easily focus on a couple of events.  So, don’t count him out.


Steve Way & Talent Identification

Steve Way was an overweight (224lb, 101kg) smoker who started running in 2007.  A couple of weeks ago he ran 2:16 at the London Marathon and he is also a leading ultra-marathoner in Europe.   Way is 39 years old.   I have done a number of posts on talent identification, and the wasted talent that is out there in many countries.  If all of the Steve Ways of the world were found and could be motivated to train as youngsters, would the East Africans be so dominant?


Closing Thoughts

The examples above all highlight things I have posted on in the last couple of years.  However, the examples of Hopkins and Way are perhaps the most extreme examples related to aging and talent identification I have ever seen.  Eaton and Phelps are just plain other worldly and perhaps their efforts show what a bit of boredom can do in the right hands.

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3 Responses to “Redefining Human Limits: Bernard Hopkins, Ashton Eaton, Michael Phelps, and Steve Way”

  1. April 22nd, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    George Brose says:

    Bernard Hopkins brings to mind , Archie Moore, light heavyweight of the 1940’s 50’s and 60’s. When he ran out of opponents in the light heavy class (175 pounds) he moved up and started fighting the heavy weights. Took on Marciano and knocked him down, although Marciano rallied and beat Moore. At the age of 49 (and perhaps older) Moore took on Muhammed Ali, but lost. Moore was a very classy guy, played Jim in a Huckleberry Finn movie. He fought professionally for 27 years. It could be that the fighters were a hardier breed then, as the sport was less watered down by the MMA crowd.

    Some of the old baseball pitchers also went up into their late forties in the early days. Walter Johnson was still throwing heat in his forties as well as Nolan Ryan in modern times. Christy Matthewson was gassed in Europe in WWI and came back to be a very good pitcher. Eammon Coughlan and the other Brit last year both broke 4 minutes after age 40.

    Comparing us to Kenyans, our society just has too many diversions to draw off the best talent into the narrow confines of sport performance. Sport for us isn’t the only way upward and outward like it is for the Kenyans, Ethiopians, Tanzanians, etc.

    In 1978 when I ran at Boston, I stayed with my college roommate in Boston. His wife was inspired by the event and began training. She was eventually able to go head to head as a forty year old runner with the college girls at 800 and the mile for a few years. She’d already had children and a career in physiotherapy. Competed for 17 years until her joints wore out.

  2. April 22nd, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Michael Joyner, M.D. says:

    Thanks George. Archie Moore is a hero of mine as well. Here’s a prior blog post on him:

  3. April 25th, 2014 at 9:24 am

    Harrison Jenkins says:

    Great post. Another example that comes to mind is the 2014 winner of the 10k biathlon at the 2014 Olympics. Ole Einar Bjørndalen won the gold medal at age 40.

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