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Older Olympians are delivering some of the best performances at the Beijing Games


The Olympic Games tend to be dominated by young athletes in their teens and 20s. But at the Beijing Winter Olympics, some of the best performances and most poignant moments so far have come from older competitors in their mid and late 30s. NPR's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When Lindsey Jacobellis pulled away from a pack of much younger women in this week's snowboard cross race, she captured America's first Olympic gold medal in Beijing. Speaking afterward, the 36-year-old said her win sends a message.


LINDSEY JACOBELLIS: I guess don't count the old girl out (laughter).

MANN: Jacobellis last won a medal, a silver, snowboarding at the Torino Olympics 16 years ago, when some of the athletes at these games weren't even born. She said getting older is one of her strengths. She's healthier now, physically and emotionally.

JACOBELLIS: As I've gotten older, I've learned to forgive myself of the uncontrollable variables, and that's just taking maturity and time. And that helps you heal and move on and apply that skill that you learned in your next race.

MANN: Jacobellis isn't alone. Cross-Country skier Jessie Diggins, who's 30, won a bronze medal here for the U.S. One of the biggest American stars at these games is snowboarder Shaun White, who's 35.

SHAUN WHITE: Pinching myself how lucky I am to be here still at this age.

MANN: White hopes to win a fourth gold medal in the halfpipe competition tonight. He's talked a lot in Beijing about what it means to compete as an older athlete and says sometimes, edging into middle age is no fun.

WHITE: I had injured my back working out randomly, which was the saddest injury because I didn't do anything. I, like, jumped from here to here, and all of a sudden, my back went like...

MANN: White says this will be his last Olympics - in fact, his last snowboard competition. So he says he plans to savor these Olympics in a way he couldn't when he was younger, whether he wins or not.

WHITE: Either way, though - and this is just with age and with time - like, either way, leaving this Olympics, I'm so happy either way.

MANN: Another favorite for a U.S. medal in Beijing is John Shuster. He's captain of the men's curling team that captured gold four years ago in Pyeongchang. Shuster, who's 39, was picked to carry the U.S. flag in the opening ceremony. He shared a dad moment on social media with his son Luke's third-grade class.

JOHN SHUSTER: He announced to his class much smoother than I announced to them that I was going to be the flag-bearer. I was at a loss for words, but he's cool, calm and collected. And it was so fun to see.

MANN: Shuster already has two Olympic medals, but you also hear this kind of perspective from older athletes who never reached the podium.

SUSAN DUNKLEE: It's been a real honor to represent U.S. biathlon for all these years.

MANN: Susan Dunklee, who's 35, shoots and skis biathlon for the U.S. Now in her third and final Olympics, Dunklee says this life has been good in ways that have nothing to do with winning medals.

DUNKLEE: To me, the sport, it's a healthy lifestyle. It's about inspiring people. It's about doing something that you love. And I really hope that that is the legacy that we all leave behind.

MANN: At a moment when mental and emotional health are serious topics in sport, it's refreshing to hear these incredibly competitive athletes sounding grounded and happy. But after her win this week, snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis also talked about the stigma she's faced in her 30s and the challenge finding sponsorships.

JACOBELLIS: As athletes, or especially women get older, it might lose the shine to be looking at them as potential. And hopefully, by doing something like this today, that that will change.

MANN: So older Americans have fared well so far at these games, and the 41-year-old Frenchman won a silver medal alpine skiing. The oldest athlete competing in Beijing is a German speed skater, Claudia Pechstein. Pechstein first won a gold medal at the Lillehammer games 28 years ago. Now competing in her eighth Winter Olympics, she'll turn 50 later this month.

Brian Mann, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIGHTMARES ON WAX'S "MORSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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