At first, they said you couldn't row after age 30. Then they said you were too old for rowing after 40. Then it was 50. But longtime rowing champ Stephen Kiesling, 49, wasn't buying any of it — and now he and fellow athlete and friend Andy Baxter, 40, are training hard for the Olympic trials next spring.
The brawny pair, both longtime Ashland crew coaches and trainers, acknowledge that aging does take a certain toll — you have to train with a lot more focus and it takes longer to recover — but they're certain they can out-row men in their 20s and 30s, whom they'll meet at the Olympic trials next April at Princeton University.
The seed for the dream sprouted in 2004, when Kiesling and Baxter won the bronze medal in the U.S Masters race in Sacramento. The next year it was the gold medal for their age group in the Canadian Masters National.
Last summer in the same meet, they went up against the young guys in the 27-to-32 age class and "couldn't quite believe" they were in the lead. Sadly, they "caught a crab" (sunk an oar deep in the water, bringing them to a dead stop), but still finished in second place, says Kiesling, who works as editor of Ashland-based Spirituality & Health Magazine.
Suddenly the idea of age and experience and something called "muscle memory" seemed a plus, something that might propel them to the Olympics — but first they have to beat everyone, some 20 to 30 boats, in the trials. Only the winner goes to Beijing to take on the world.
It's a big dream, one with an especially sweet taste for Kiesling, who was on the U.S. rowing team for the 1980 Moscow Olympics that the U.S. boycotted after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Aging, he says, is not going to get in the way and stop him a second time.
"No one knows what our generation is capable of," says Kiesling, getting set for an afternoon row with Baxter on Emigrant Lake in their "men's pair" boat. "People our age haven't kept training and there's no data."
Baxter, a medical exercise specialist and owner of Baxter Fitness Solutions in Medford and Ashland, explains that, with age, athletes tend to veer away from anaerobic, muscle-building work and keep fit with low-intensity cardio workout. However, "the muscles of an 80-year-old respond the same as a 20-year-old."
Kiesling notes that he would never have dreamed at age 20 of competing against a 49-year-old, "but this is a different story and it's really powerful — that fitness doesn't fall off with age. There was supposed to be a precipitous drop at 30, then 40, then 50, but there isn't."
Baxter adds, "There are no limits. That's what we're finding out."
The craft is a skimpy boat holding two men, each with one oar, says Baxter, and it's unstable — "440 pounds of muscle pulling a 52-pound boat." But when they set it in the glassy water of Emigrant Lake and put their backs to it, the arrow-like shell virtually rockets across the water.
Ashland Rowing Club coach Joe Lusa, 66, who this summer won three gold medals in his age group at the Canadian meet, says the pair are motivated, healthy, competitive, put in the time training and have the will to win, so it's possible.
While Kiesling and Baxter keep smiting long-accepted limits and rules about what's possible, they do admit one limiting factor in their quest for Olympic glory: even if they qualify for the Olympics, there's no way they or anyone else can beat the heavily-favored Australian team, so it's all about going for the silver.
"Even if we don't make it at 49 or 50, in 10 years someone's going to do it. So why not us? We've got nothing to lose and everything to gain — and everyone's helping us and are excited about the possibility," Kiesling says.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.