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‘I’ve never slowed down’: meet the sports champions playing into their 80s

‘One of my nicknames is The Tank’: Dickie Borthwick, footballer, 83, Weymouth, Dorset

My competitive football career started at Invergordon Academy in the Scottish Highlands, before I progressed to Invergordon Town at the age of 15. Since then, I’ve played in about 1,600 matches and scored well over 400 goals. The game I most remember was a local derby for Sherborne Town against another Sherborne side. I scored a hat-trick, but I also broke the goalkeeper’s thumb with a shot. You never forget a hat-trick. I scored another when I was 65.

When I go on the pitch, I always say to the opposition, “I’m getting on a bit, but treat me as a normal player. Tackle me hard, I don’t mind, because I’ll be doing it to you.” I don’t want to be treated as an old person. And one or two do come in hard, and sometimes they’ve come off worse. One of my nicknames is The Tank. I’ve never been a dirty player, mind you.

I have a routine to keep fit. Every evening before bed, I go to the window and take in 10 really, really deep breaths of fresh air. And I do the same thing in the morning – 10 breaths of fresh air, really holding it in my lungs. Living in Weymouth, we have lovely sea air. But wherever I am, I do this routine.

And I’m strict with my diet. I live alone and I know what food is good for me and what isn’t. Certain foods suit the body. I’m disciplined, too. When I have a cup of tea, I take just one biscuit from the tin. I wouldn’t think about taking any more. Discipline, desire, dedication, determination and drive: I’ve tried to conduct my life by those five Ds.

Playing football does make me feel young. People say, “You’re never that age.” Getting older is not a nice thing. I also play keyboards and sing in the pubs and clubs, and one of my gigs is at a rest home where there are obviously a lot of elderly people. I think, “Oh, I don’t want to get like that.”

People have asked if I’d play walking football. It’s fine for those who can’t run very quickly, but it’s not for me. For as long as I can run around at a reasonable pace, I won’t attempt walking football. I want to play the game at the rate it should be played. I was a precision engineer by trade and we were on piece work; the quicker you worked, the more bonus you earned. It’s an in-built thing for me. I’ve never slowed down.

The difficulty I’ve had in the past few years is finding a team. Veterans’ teams are constantly folding, including the team I signed for a couple of seasons ago. On the Thursday, the manager had 14 players available; but by the Sunday, only eight were available. He just said, “That’s it. I’m finished with veteran footballers. You’re not reliable.”

So I’m without a club at the moment. Veterans football has become very competitive compared to 10 years ago, and I don’t want to play for cups and medals. I want to play in a competitive game, yes, but with the social side of it afterwards – food laid on, talk about the game, have a couple of pints. I miss the banter. In one pub, we even had a post-match singalong around the piano.

I’m still available. There’s no question about that.

‘Cricket’s in my blood, ever since I played barefoot in Jamaica’: Cecil Wright, cricketer, 85, Oldham

I came to England from Jamaica in 1959 as a fast bowler, to play professionally for Crompton Cricket Club in the Central Lancashire League. They paid me £300 for the summer, but I had to pay my own air fare to come over. My first impression of England? That it was cold! The standard here was very good. I played that summer, then came back again the next summer and finally settled here in 1961.

I’ve played with and against some legends, including Gary Sobers, Frank Worrell and Wes Hall. They also played professionally in Lancashire during the summer. Sobers played in the Central Lancashire League at the same time as me.

I played for Lancashire over-50s until I was 70; now I play for Uppermill 2nd XI. We’ve got about five youngsters in the team, as well as me, and someone else who’s 75. I’ve played in the same team as my son, too. He’d bowl from one end and I’d be bowling from the other.

The opposition probably think, “I don’t want that old man to get me out,” so they up their game a little. My bowling is a little slower these days, but I still know how to get people out. I played 32 matches last summer and took roughly 30 wickets. One thing that annoyed me: in our final match I was on a hat-trick, but as I ran in to bowl, I slipped.

Honestly, though, I don’t keep a close eye on how many wickets I’ve taken. I’m there to enjoy the game, like everybody else. Some fellas I know keep telling me, “I did this and I did that and I’ve got these trophies,” and all that. I’ve got trophies but I don’t crow about them. Even as a professional, I didn’t count up how many wickets I’d taken over a season. My wife keeps a scrapbook and I was looking through it yesterday. It says that way back in the 1980s, I had taken 1,780 wickets. I’ve taken a lot more now. Someone said more than 2,000.

I don’t have a special diet. When I get an injury, I don’t cry off – I try to play through it. I’ve played a match with a pulled hamstring before and just rested it after. I stay active outside the cricket season, coaching the kids at the club. And I play bowls, too.

Cricket’s in my blood, ever since I played barefoot back home in Jamaica as a kid. Everyone asks, “When are you going to finish?” I always tell them that I’ll wait to see what happens next year. I feel well at the moment. I think I’ll just keep going.

‘My first marathon was tough. I said, “I will never do anything this stupid again” ’: Eileen Noble, marathon runner, 84, Bexleyheath, Kent

Eileen Noble, Marathon runner, 83, Bexleyheath, Kent

I started road running when it became popular about 30 years ago. It was the London Marathon that made me want to – not that I intended to run a marathon. Running was something I really wanted to do but I was a bit nervous. I felt embarrassed. I thought the neighbours would think, “What is she doing?” Nowadays there are loads of women runners out on the road, but back then it was rather unusual.

One day, I plucked up the courage and ran round the block. I started out rather casually, as though I was running for the bus, and then sped up after I went round the corner. I huffed and puffed, but when I got back, I thought, “I love this. I want to go again.”

My first race was a 4km fun run. It was a team event, so I got a few people at work together. Most viewed it as a one-off, but my friend and I carried on afterwards. The following year, we did our first London Marathon together. We didn’t really have a training schedule; we ran five miles on weekdays, but added an extra mile to our longer Sunday run each week. We built up that way.

That first marathon was tough. I reached the last few miles and said to myself, “If I finish this, I will never do anything this stupid again.” Then I ran it the following year and have done another 16 since then. I didn’t keep to that very well, did I? All have been the London Marathon, except for the time I ran the Lochaber one. That was beautiful, but very different: there was barely a soul about, and it was like a very long training run. London does get crowded. Everyone’s running on your heels and you’re running on others’ heels. I still think it’s the best, though.

I did it in 2018 because I wanted to be the oldest woman, which I was. I won my age group, too – but I still didn’t get a place in the 2019 race [414,000 people entered the ballot; there are only about 17,000 places]. How unfair is that?

I’ve tried track running, but going round in circles doesn’t do it for me. I tried the treadmill in the gym, but I could see the park through the window. I thought: “What am I doing in here? Why am I not running out there?”

I still run four times a week. Having friends at my running club who are younger than me makes me feel younger. It is also good for relieving stress. When my husband was ill, I’d come home from hospital and go for a run – it was therapeutic.

I want to run marathons until 2020, at which point I’ll be 85. That might be the end of the marathons, I think. But not running – I won’t give up running.

‘I’ve got my eye on the over-90s title’: Pam Butcher, table tennis champion, 88, Meopham, Kent

Pam Butcher, Table tennis champion, 88

I didn’t start playing table tennis until I was in my 20s; before that, I was playing county level tennis. I stopped playing when I had children and didn’t return for many years. But when I went back to work, I took it up again: there happened to be a table there. I played at lunchtimes and one of the men asked if I could be a reserve for their local league team.

I didn’t play seriously until I started competing in veterans’ tournaments when I was 50. I was free from looking after the children by then. The first tournament I can remember was in Coventry, where I won the over-40s. The woman I beat was 42. She said, “I don’t mind being beaten by a 40-year-old, but not a 50-year-old!”

The first big tournament I won was the Veterans European Championships in Vienna in 1995, when I was 65. I won the over-60s and beat the then world champion and a previous world champion. I’ve become world champion myself since, but I still think the first was my biggest win. I’d never won anything like that before. They played the national anthem and I received a bouquet and a huge cup.

Table tennis has taken me to places I would never have visited. I’ve played all over the world. My husband wasn’t a keen traveller, but I travelled with a group of veterans. I liked China very much – I won the over-80s singles and doubles there. I thought Rio was exotic. Canada was wonderful.

I was disappointed at the world championships in Las Vegas last June. I was defending the title I won two years previously in Alicante, but lost to a Japanese player in the semi-final. It was very close – 16-14 in the final game – so I only got the bronze. They don’t play national anthems these days because there’s no time. It’s an enormous event. In Vegas, there were 150 tables in one room and 5,000 players! I’ve possibly got my eye on the over-90s title at the next world championships in 2020. We’ll have to wait and see.

I don’t think table tennis gets enough publicity in this country. It’s much more affordable than buying a set of golf clubs; you can pay as little as £20 for a good bat. And then there are the health benefits. King’s College London did an experiment with several activities for the elderly, and table tennis came out well. As well as the physical movement, there’s the rapid eye movement and concentration, which is supposed to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

I was honoured to receive an MBE for services to table tennis. My family were stunned. Prince Charles made the award. I’ve never been impressed with him on the news, but he was charming. He asked if I was still playing. When I said I was, he said, “That’s wonderful. But I don’t think I’m going to take you on today.”

‘I’ve nearly killed myself on numerous occasions’: Ron Longstaff, cyclist, 91, Hexham, Northumberland

Ron Longstaff, Cyclist, 91, Hexham, Northumberland

What started me off was my father buying me a lightweight bike when he was demobbed. He had been a cyclist before the war, so it was in the blood. My first race was as a 20-year-old in a 50-mile time trial in Northumberland; I was the fastest novice, which fuelled my enthusiasm.

I won the Veterans’ Road Race World Championship in Austria in 1997 when I was 70. I was up against former professionals. On the Monday, I won the world championship and on the Wednesday I became the European Masters champion. I won by three or four lengths at both events. I’ve got photos of my finishes, with my one-armed victory salute – a bit like Alan Shearer! I got two huge cups for those races. I’ve got trophies galore and more than 100 medals.

Over the years, I’ve ridden many 12-hour time trials, and at the age of 80 I was determined to do a 24-hour one. I lost an hour and a half to sickness, but I still broke the record for an 80-year-old. I covered 326 miles in that time. And I crashed near the finish, too.

I still do between 150-180 miles a week on the bikeI’ve nearly killed myself on numerous occasions. When I was about 60, I had a nasty accident in Northumberland. I was coming up to a junction and there was no marshal around. I hadn’t seen that a wagon had stopped. I hit it at about 25mph and landed in the middle of the road. I broke my collarbone, punctured my lung and had to have a plate put into my left arm. And when I was 73, I was nearly killed in Thailand. A van hit me head-on and left me bleeding at the side of the road. I had to have 29 stitches in my head.

The secret of my longevity? I had a very long-living mother who died only a week before her 99th birthday. Other than that, I’ve led a normal life. We didn’t have the supplements we have today. I wasn’t living on just bread and jam, but it was a simple diet.

I still do between 150-180 miles a week on the bike. Fortunately, living in Northumberland, the roads are quiet. But the real handicap – whether I’m heading out north, south, east or west – is that I’ve got to climb straight away. And you’re starting from cold, which is not good.

Cycling has never been as popular as running, but the social aspect has gone completely. When I go out on a Sunday, the most I see riding together are two or three riders. At one time, we might have had up to 60 doing a club run.

Everyone recognises me because I wear my original club colours. And I don’t wear a helmet. Never have – only when I’ve been racing.

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Source: TheGuardian