WHEN YOU THINK of the world’s premier athletes, feats of incredible strength, impossible speed and unrivalled determination undoubtedly spring to mind, all of which are far easier skills to have in your repertoire during your prime physical years. As such, while athletes come in all shapes and sizes, there’s one thing that almost all of them have in common: youth.
Most athletes are young. That’s not because of some bizarre coincidence, but an undeniable, innate truism of the universe. To accomplish athletic goals, we have to strike while the iron is hot and while we’re at our physical peaks, lest the inevitable cruelty of age begins to slow us down, making our once attainable goals appear distinctly out of reach.
Despite this, not all athletes are young. Many have found success later in their careers, aging like fine wine and showing us that age really is just a number. Although he turned pro at just 18 years of age, after more than 20 years in the NBA, LeBron James is now one of those athletes.
With Miami Heat stalwart Udonis Haslem retiring at the end of the 2022/23 season, LeBron, at 38 years of age, will start the upcoming season as the oldest player in the NBA. Let’s be clear, 38 is only old by professional athletes’ standards. A regular 38-year-old still has plenty of time left on the clock. There’s no need to worry about aging there, but if you are concerned, LeBron’s reaction to finding out he’s the league’s oldest player likely won’t alleviate your fears.
🤯 LeBron’s reaction! 💥 pic.twitter.com/SVMEK1Miyt— NBA (@NBA) October 5, 2023
The 2023/24 season will be LeBron’s 21st in the NBA, and his athletic prowess and league-wide dominance are hardly showing any signs of letting up. King James averaged 28.9 points per game last season—putting him in the upper echelon of scorers—while leading the Los Angeles Lakers all the way from the seventh seed to the Western Conference finals.
James’ continued athletic ability and unrivalled longevity are testaments to the ironically age-old adage that age is just a number. Here’s ten more athletes who give credence to the claim.
Tom Brady is arguably the greatest American football player of all time and it’s his longevity that has aided his ascension to NFL royalty status. At 45 years of age, the legend finally decided to call it quits after finishing his 23rd professional season. Brady holds almost every quarterback record there is, including the most touchdown passes, passing yards and completions.
Brady entered the NFL in 2000 and had been in the league since before some of his competitors were born. He doesn’t only have more Superbowl wins than any other player, he has more than any team. What’s even more impressive is that he won three of his seven Superbowl’s after turning 39.
Roger Milla took the footballing world by storm at the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. At 38 years old, Milla had retired from professional football after a successful, but not exactly noteworthy career in Europe. After receiving a phone call from the President of Cameroon asking him to come out of retirement to play at the 1990 World Cup, Milla couldn’t say no.
Milla had been a regular on the Cameroonian national team throughout his career and even played at the 1982 World Cup. But the 38-year-old’s inclusion in the squad was not expected to improve the team’s chances in a formidable group, which included Romania, the Soviet Union and reigning champions Argentina. Milla was the star of the tournament, scoring four goals, becoming the oldest goal scorer at a World Cup and boosting Cameroon all the way to the quarterfinals of the competition.
Four years later at the age of 42, Milla returned to the World Cup and extended his oldest goal scorer record. His goal against Russia solidified his status as the World Cup’s oldest ever scorer, a record that still stands today.
Roger Federer is the most senior member of the storied ‘big three’ of men’s tennis alongside Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Federer dominated the ATP tour early in his career, winning his first grand slam title at just 21, and 11 of the 16 grand slams between 2004 and 2007. But it was his ability to rise to the top of the rankings later in his career that cemented his place as one of the best of all time.
Federer is the oldest men’s tennis player to be ranked number one in the world. When he reclaimed the top spot in 2018, he was 36 years old. He’s also the second oldest grand slam winner ever, winning the 2018 Australian Open at 36. Federer only retired in September 2022 and was still a competitive force right up until his farewell at the 2022 Laver Cup.
Twenty years ago, surfing spectators and pundits alike were already speaking in hushed tones about Kelly Slater’s impending retirement. Sure, Slater was still at the pinnacle of the sport, but having already accomplished all there is to accomplish, it was assumed that he would quietly ride out the rest of his career before committing to the pressure-free zone of retirement. Twenty years on, those conversations are still taking place. Slater, now 51, is still a fixture on the World Surfing League’s pro tour.
To put Slater’s longevity into context, he won his first world championship in 1992, when he was 20. At the time, Paul Keating had just taken office as Australia’s 24th Prime Minister, Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back’ was topping the charts, Home Alone 2 had just been released, and LeBron James, the man at the top of this list, was eight years old. Slater’s crowning late-career achievement came at the 2022 Pipeline Masters, where he won his eighth title at the event, 30 years—to the day—after his first.
Oscar Swahn is the oldest Olympian of all time. But at 72-years-old, Swahn didn’t just show up and participate at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, he took home a silver medal in the double shot running deer event—yes, that was once a real Olympic event, though they didn’t shoot at an actual deer, just a target shaped like one.
Sporting a long white beard as evidence of his advanced age, Swahn was a dominant force in the sport of shooting. Despite the Swede’s supremacy, he only began shooting competitively at the age of 60. Swahn isn’t just the oldest Olympian, he’s also the oldest gold medallist. Swahn won three gold medals throughout his Olympic career, the latest of which came when he was 64.
You would think bodybuilding is the kind of sport that becomes impossible with age, as your body just can’t pay the high physical toll it takes to be a bodybuilder for too long. It’s for that reason that most bodybuilders retire once they reach their early thirties. With that in mind, allow us to introduce you to Albert Beckles, a former pro bodybuilder who was still competing in his sixties.
When he was 47, an age already considered incredible by bodybuilding standards, Beckles placed second in the Mr Olympia contest. Beckles had a long and illustrious bodybuilding career. His last body building competition was the Niagara Falls Pro Invitational of 1991—which he won at age 61.
Andrew Hoy became Australia’s oldest ever Olympian at the Tokyo 2020 Games when he competed in equestrian events at the age of 62. Hoy took home his sixth Olympic medal in Tokyo, claiming silver in team eventing.
A testament to his longevity, it’s been 22 years since Hoy was inducted into the Australian Sporting Hall of Fame and he’s still one of the best in the world at what he does. Hoy’s first Olympics were in 1984 and he hasn’t ruled out competing at future Games.
Ole Einar Bjørndalen
Take a moment to guess what event the oldest ever Winter Olympic gold medallist competed in. Now if you didn’t guess the biathlon, we won’t hold it against you, because that’s one of the most gruelling events in the program and is not something that gets easier with age. But that’s precisely the event Norwegian Ole Einar Bjørndalen won gold in at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Biathlon combines cross-country skiing with shooting. It’s the kind of sport that’s not for everyone, but it’s immensely popular in Scandinavia, where it’s presumably more practical to be skilled at skiing and shooting at the same time.
Bjørndalen, better known as the ‘king of biathlon’, was 40 years old when he won the last of his 13 Olympic medals. His incredible medal tally makes him the second most successful winter Olympian of all time, and he capped off that tally in his fifth decade.
Miura, affectionately know as ‘King Kazu’ in Japan, is a footballing legend. Miura has played almost 800 professional games during his career, beginning all the way back in 1986 when he was only 18. Now 56 years old, King Kazu is still going strong, playing in Portugal’s second division.
It almost seems unjust to say that Miura was a lethal striker ‘in his day’, because King Kazu is still banging in goals now. Last year, Miura became the oldest goal scorer in the history of professional football after slotting home a penalty kick for Japan’s Suzuka Point Getters. A testament to his longevity, when Miura featured in the first ever FIFA video game, FIFA 96, he was already a ten-year veteran.
At the end of our list, we have an athlete who isn’t just remarkable for longevity, but also for simply staying in competitive shape while being more than 100 years old. Stanisław Kowalski was the oldest ever professional athlete. He competed in the Polish Veterans Championships, a professional athletics competition, in 2015 when he was 105 years old. Finishing the 100-metre sprint in an electric 34.5 seconds, unleashing a powerful shot put of 4.27 metres and putting low-flying planes on high alert with a discus throw of 7.50 metres.
Kowalski’s dedication to keeping in shape and taking part in competitions resulted in the creation of a new age category for professional athletics, the +105 class, for athletes aged over 105. If there was ever an example of dedication, it was Kowalski, who passed away in April of 2022.
These athletes destroy common misconceptions about what it takes to be an athlete, and preconceived notions of sports in general. You don’t have to be young to make an impact, and it’s never too late to reach your goals. If a centenarian can accomplish something amazing, what’s stopping you?