10 Summer Olympic Sports You're Not Too Old to Qualify For

Even older people can compete in the olympics when they choose the right sport

Watching Michael Phelps win his 23rd gold medal, or Simone Biles wipe the gymnastics floor with her competition at the 2016 Olympics is enough to fill anyone with a combination of awe and wistfulness. The awe is self-explanatory—who wouldn't be amazed by the athletic prowess of today's Olympians? But the wistfulness might surprise you, especially if you never dreamed of competing on an international athletic stage. And yet, the thought still sits there, niggling at the back of your mind, "What if, just what if, I missed my calling? What if, with the right training, I could have qualified for an Olympic sport?"

Well, you may not be 16 anymore, but that doesn't mean you have to hang up your hopes for an Olympic gold. In fact, the oldest Olympian to compete in the Rio Summer Olympic Games was 62-year old Julie Brougham from New Zealand, aiming for her first ever Olympic medal in equestrian dressage. She didn't make it to the finals, but considering it was her first go at the Games, she may still be back in four years, as a strapping young 66-year-old.

And that doesn't even make her the oldest Olympian ever to compete. 

That prize goes to Oscar Swahn from Sweden, who became the oldest gold medalist in Olympic history at 64 years old when he participated in 1912 as a shooter in the single shot running deer team. That wasn't even the end of Swahn's competitive years. He returned to the Games in 1920 as a 72-year-old, taking a silver medal in another team shooting event.

Granted, today's athletic events are more widely publicized and participated in than in the 1920s, but if you're really dedicated to making a name for yourself in sport, you may still have a shot at winning a gold. But if you're, say, 35 years old, you probably shouldn't expect to become a world-class gymnast. Sometimes age really does matter. Instead, set your sights and train for one of the following summer Olympic sports you're (hopefully) not too old to qualify for. 

Just remember, the road won't be easy—in addition to intense training, you'll need to have a natural talent and the type of genetic makeup that lends itself to Olympic success. These requirements vary from sport-to-sport, but it's fairly safe to say you'll need a slight build and incredible cardiovascular and muscular endurance to qualify as a marathon runner, Likewise, you'll need killer hand-eye coordination to have a shot at table tennis. Choose wisely, then buckle down and get to work.

1
Archery

Archery in Rio Olympics
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Believe it or not, Oscar Award-winning actress Geena Davis almost made it to the 2000 Sydney Olympics as part of the United States archery team at the age of 42. She hadn't even picked up a bow and arrow until 1997 (do the math, that made her 39) after watching the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and drawing inspiration from the then-21-year-old Californian archer, Justin Huish. Out of 300 archers vying for a spot on the 2000 Olympic team, Davis ended up an impressive 24th place. 

Overall, the age of competitive archers skews higher than the more well-known Olympic events, so competing as a 30, 40 or even 50 year old isn't unheard of. 

Important skills: Hand-eye coordination, proprioception, moderate ​upper body flexibility, moderate upper body strength, extreme mental focus

2
Equestrian

Equestrian at Rio Olympics
David Rogers/Getty Images

As evidenced by New Zealander Brougham's entrance to the Rio games at age 62, there's no doubt that individuals can qualify for equestrian events well into their golden years. It's important to remember a few things, though, when aiming for horseback riding success: 

  1. In addition to your own skill, you need a horse that's equally skilled, trained and prepared to compete. 
  2. Horses are expensive. The highest level show jumpers, for instance, can cost six or seven figures. Yes—hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars. Plus, beyond the cost of the horse itself, you must pay for the care and feeding of the horse. This can be an almost insurmountable barrier to entry in the sport. 

If money and time aren't a problem, though, then why not go for it? 

Important skills: Lower body and core strength, high comfort-level with horses, an almost unending supply of money and time

3
Shooting

Shooting in Rio Olympics
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Shooting, like archery, is a sport that's easier for people to start later in life because you don't have to have a particular body shape or size to participate. In fact, athletes competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics ranged in age from 16 to 55, with most falling between 26 and 40. See? There's still time for you to get started.

One thing that actually benefits older athletes is the mental focus and wherewithal the sport requires. Sheer strength isn't as important as mental strength, and mental strength can improve over time and with experience and age. 

Important skills: Hand-eye coordination, proprioception, mental toughness, moderate upper body and core strength, cardiovascular endurance to keep heart rate low

4
Marathon

2016 rio marathon olympics
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

If you think you're up for running 26.2 miles at sprint-level speeds, then you can certainly try your hand at marathon running. Out of the six Americans in the 2016 Rio Games, only one of them (Jared Ward) was under 30. The remaining men and women were 32 years and older, with Meb Keflezighi claiming the prize as the oldest on the team at 41 years. 

The skew toward older athletes in marathon running is in part due to the older age of entry into the sport, as many marathoners don't get their start until their late teens or 20s. 

Important skills: Extreme cardiovascular endurance, extreme muscular endurance, particularly of the lower body, mental toughness

5
Triathlon

Triathlon in Rio
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Triathlon, like marathon running and cycling, is a sport many athletes don't take up until their teens or 20s, but because of the strong showings required across three tough endurance events, athletes tend to be a little younger. For instance, the American team in the 2016 Rio Olympics ranged in age from 23 to 34, with most athletes sitting right around 30 years old. The trick here is how good you have to be in all three events—cycling, swimming, and marathon running. It takes a special genetic makeup to succeed in all three areas. 

Important skills: Extreme cardiovascular endurance, extreme muscular endurance, muscular strength, particularly of the lower body and core, mental toughness

6
Road Cycling

Cycling in Rio Olympics
Getty Images/Sport Pool

Only one of the athletes (Taylor Phinney) participating in road cycling for Team USA at the Rio Olympics was under 30 years old. And the oldest cyclist, Kristin Armstrong, is a three-time Olympic gold medalist who didn't start focusing on cycling until she was 27 years old, after being diagnosed with the osteoarthritis that ended her running and triathlon career. The fact that she was able to land her third gold at 43 is pretty impressive. Who knows, maybe you could be the next Kristin Armstrong. 

Important skills: Extreme cardiovascular endurance, extreme muscular endurance, extreme lower body strength and power, mental toughness

Not ready for road cycling? Check out indoor cycling instead.

7
Rowing

Rowing in Rio Olympics
Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

It may come as a surprise, but it's not unusual for universities to struggle to fill their rowing teams, especially in areas of the country where rowing is less known, without the high school or club teams to feed into the college level. I'll never forget sitting in a high school English class and having a former student come to class and share how she landed a partial division 1 scholarship for rowing by simply showing up for practice and joining the team. This girl had never played a single sport in high school.

It's reasons like these that it's not unusual for Olympic-level rowers to get their start in their late teens or 20s. This late start in the sport leads to an older average Olympian age, which sits right around 30 years old. Just be aware that rowing is hard and often requires early, early mornings. If the thought of 5:00am training sessions on a river sound miserable, you might want to consider a different sport. 

Important skills: Cardiovascular endurance, extreme full-body muscular endurance, upper body muscular strength and power, comfort in the water

8
Table Tennis

Table Tennis in Rio Olympics
Phil Walter/Getty Images

Table tennis at the Olympics is nothing like a quick game of ping-pong in the garage with your kids. This sport is serious, and seriously hard, requiring a surprising level of fitness as you must have the speed, agility, and hand-eye coordination to keep a volley alive. So you may be surprised to hear that table tennis could be one of the more challenging "old athlete" sports to take up. That said, it's not unheard of for older athletes to compete at the highest level. For instance, the 2016 men's bronze medal-winning team from Germany consisted of a 27-year-old, Dimitrij Ovtcharov, and two 35-year-olds, Timo Boll and Bastian Steger (shown in the image above). 

Important skills: Speed, agility, hand-eye coordination, cardiovascular endurance

9
Canoeing

Sprint Canoeing in Rio Olympics
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Canoeing, not unlike rowing, runs the gamut in terms of age, with Team USA athletes ranging in age from lower 20s to upper 30s. The nice thing about canoeing is this individual or doubles sport doesn't require a slew of people to fill up a boat, so it's feasible that with the help of a coach, you could take it up on your own time and dime. You do, however, need access to a large body of water, as well as some serious upper body strength and power. 

Important skills: Cardiovascular endurance, total body muscular endurance, extreme upper body muscular strength and power, comfort in the water

10
Water Polo

Water Polo in Rio Olympics
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Team sports are hard to get a foothold in later in life, largely because the best athletes in the world have been playing since they were kids—for evidence, look no further than basketball, soccer, and volleyball.

One possible exception is water polo. While the sport is certainly filled with athletes who have been playing since childhood, as a whole, it's a less known and participated in event. This means if you can find a team, and you're willing to train like a madman or woman, and you have a whole lot of natural talent, you might just be able to eke out a late-life spot. 

Important skills: Cardiovascular endurance, total body muscular endurance, upper body strength and power, comfort in the water, generally well-balanced sports-related skills including hand-eye coordination, agility, speed and power

Sources:

NBC Rio Olympic Coverage. http://www.nbcolympics.com/

Continue Reading