Alex Rotas still recalls the feeling of emptiness when she typed “older sportsmen and women” into the search engine on her computer. As a junior academic researching visual culture, Rotas was on the hunt for some imagery of older tennis players and, as someone who once played competitively for Greece, waited in anticipation as she sat back in her chair, pencil poised.
Nothing came up. So she tried all the variants of “old” she could think of: senior, elder, masters. But still, her search proved fruitless. “What bounced back were depressing images of people sitting looking passive and vacant in residential home settings,” Rotas says. “At best, they would be being tended to by a smiling carer.”
It was enough for Rotas to abruptly call time on the world of academia and embark on a mission: to challenge the stereotypes associated with older bodies. She did not know the first thing about photography, nor did she own a camera, but such was her determination that she paid for a photography tutor who helped her choose one.
A whole decade on, her quest has blossomed into an exhilarating adventure. Rotas is now an enthusiastic anti-ageism activist, inspired by the remarkable people she has met in the world of masters championships, where shrivelled skin is revered through the lens of physicality and strength.
“What attracted me to track and field in the first place was actually the nakedness,” the Bristol-based photographer reveals. “In other sports, the body is covered up more, whereas in track and field the athletes are in these tiny singlets. The body is exposed.
Meet the 91-year-old shot-putter
Shot put is relatively genteel compared to what Hilja Bakhoff can throw.
The 91-year-old Estonian athlete actually partakes in the women’s weight throw event.
This is a ball-and-chain event where athletes gather their momentum by rotating a heavy ball on the end of a chain, in order to gather proper momentum, before letting it fly.
It’s an amazing thing to see a 90-plus woman do as it’s a pretty hard-core event. This photograph of Hilja was taken at the 2017 European Masters Athletics Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, where she threw 8.08m to set a new world record in the 90-94 year-old age group.
As well as that, she’s also the European record holder for the throws in the pentathlon for her age group.
“Even as an older woman, I wasn’t used to seeing the older female body so casually and unselfconsciously displayed. It’s an older body in its prime. These people are training, you can see all of their musculature and, at the same time, you can see all the wrinkles.”
It is the emotion etched on the faces of such remarkable human competitors which adds a whole other layer of marvel. “I’m always looking for the special moment of emotion,” Rotas says. “The joy, the exertion. Again, it’s the nakedness of the emotion you see when someone’s pushing themself physically to the utmost extent.
Meet the 70-year-old race walker
At the age of 70, race walker Sandra Brown holds so many records in the ultra-walking world that it’s hard really to even know where you should begin.
In March, she became the first person to complete 200 events of 100 miles or more in the Dublin to Belfast race, setting a new record of 21hrs, 15m 33secs.
I photographed her at the Isle of Man 100 Mile Centurion race walk in August, where more than half of the competitors dropped out during the wet, windy and chilly night. Until she stopped with sickness, Sandra had been the lead woman and persevered to cross the line as the second female.
She smiled all the way around. I gave up even trying to capture her with any expression other than delight. Watching her in action, you can’t fail to be touched by her magic.
By Alex Rotas
“I think if you can show an 80-year-old showing that rawness and that emotion and that desire to do their best – not necessarily to win – it’s a remarkable thing and it gives you hope.”
But documenting such athletes through the freedom of her lens has instilled within Rotas more than just hope. It has injected her with a new zest for life. Instead of fearing the milestone of reaching 70 earlier this month, she has run towards it in every literal sense, having caught the running bug aged 63 after the women she was photographing kept telling her to have a go. Completing the Bristol 10k – on two occasions – is one of her crowning achievements, although at any given opportunity she proudly enlightens others of her current runners’ injury (a labral tear: damage to the cartilage around the top of the femur).
Meet the 103-year-old javelin thrower
At 103, Man Kaurwas encouraged to start masters athletics ten years ago by her son, Gardev, who competes in the men’s long jump in the 80-84 age category.
She still travels the world from her native India to compete in international championships and is an all-rounder. Jet lag doesn’t seem to be in her vocabulary.
Last September, I photographed her running in the 200m (she didn’t enter the 100m and I could only assume this wasn’t enough of a challenge for her) but she also competes in throwing events.
Usually, Gardev greets her at the finish line.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, years of following masters athletes have led to a cascade of friendships at a time in life when most fall into the chasm of loneliness and are condemned to the vulnerable perception of what it means to be “old”.
“When I started this, I’d just turned 60,” Rotas says. “I still coloured my hair. I still felt middle-aged. I didn’t feel like I was old. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that now, I’m kind of not middle-aged any longer.
“I don’t dye my hair and it’s made me rejoice in my wrinkles because I’ve seen how I’ve been able to admire and want to know these people with all of their wrinkles, so why should I worry about mine?”