Turning old into gold – how I became a world track star at 87
”Some of the gym-goers sometimes comment, ‘If I reach your age, I hope I’m in the same situation,”’ she smiles.
Supergran Clasina van der Veeken may have only won her first athletics medal 14 years ago, but the remarkable octogenarian has more than made up for lost time.
Since that maiden podium appearance, the Whangarei-based masters athlete has won dozens of medals domestically and internationally, and at the age of 87 is continuing to defy the sands of time with her awe-inspiring achievements.
Born and raised on a farm in the Netherlands, close to the border with Belgium, she recalls an “active” upbringing milking cows and cycling.
Arriving in Eketahuna in 1959, aged 28, to live on a farm with her then husband, Clasina later moved north to a farm in Tangiteroria in the ’70s “because the weather was better”.
Despite Clasina’s energetic lifestyle, it wasn’t until she retired from farming to live in Whangarei 20 years ago that her sporting journey began – and then only by chance.
A keen recreational cyclist, she took a dive over her handlebars after stopping abruptly for a car and broke her neck. Following the accident, Clasina switched to competitive walking, finishing a four-day event in her native Netherlands and walking the Whangarei Marathon.
However, it wasn’t until she was 73, when a local masters athlete approached Clasina to attend the Northland Masters Games, that her latent athletics career really hit its stride.
“I didn’t know anything about masters athletics, but she said, ‘If you compete, you always win a medal,'” recalls Clasina. “I thought that would be nice. I’d never won a medal in my life.”
The great-grandmother of three proved a natural, regularly climbing the winners podium and quickly discovering the camaraderie of the sport.
Clasina has gone on to win a bagful of World Championship and World Masters Games medals, as well as claiming age-group world records in the steeplechase and for New Zealand in the women’s 4 x 400m relay.
More recently, at the 2018 World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga, Spain, she secured gold medals in the hammer throw and triple jump, and silver in the 100m, 400m and shot put.
For Clasina, keeping fit is a way of life. Walking 5km every day and cycling twice a week, she also causes the odd raised eyebrow by attending regular stretching classes at her gym.
“Some of the gym-goers sometimes comment, ‘If I reach your age, I hope I’m in the same situation,'” she smiles.
A devoted competitor at her weekly 5km park run, which she walk-runs in around 40 minutes, Clasina also tackles an occasional half-marathon and trains once a week at Whangarei Athletics.
“I train with the over-60s but it’s not so serious,” she says of her club nights. “A little bit of throwing and then talking.”
Also committed to a healthy diet, the active octogenarian believes that her disciplined approach is something she picked up during her childhood in the Netherlands.
“As a youngster, it was easy to eat healthily and I’ve just carried on,” she explains. “Back then, we had no lollies. Now there are too many food options on the market. I’m still careful about what I eat. I have lots of veggies and some meat. I don’t eat potatoes and I only have the occasional slice of bread.
“I’ve never had diabetes and except for a few broken bones, no major health issues.”
Living on her own, Clasina continues to compete in athletics because “I don’t get many visitors these days and you have to do something”.
So what does she consider her favourite event?
“I like the triple jump and long jump. But I like them all. I never did the high jump. I can’t do everything because people would say, ‘Gosh, how many events have you entered?'”
Clasina, who will celebrate her 88th birthday in May, also fills her time by running an exercise class for the elderly in her adopted home town and leads communion for people in a rest home.
Showing no signs of slowing down, the active senior has her eye on the 2020 World Masters Athletics Championships in Canada where she hopes to reconnect with her brother, who lives in Ontario.
But she admits making too many plans at her age is a little risky.
“It is honestly hard to say where my athletics story will go because there are not too many people my age left anymore,” she explains.
However, one fact is certain – for as long as she is able, Clasina wants to remain active and has no plans to hang up her spikes just yet.
“I could do knitting,” she chuckles. “But I don’t have the patience for that.”