It's never too late to make an Olympic first impression

Inspirational Olympic debutantes in their 40s and top contenders in their 50s and 60s at Tokyo 2020: Yes, age is just a number.

8 min By olympic-editorialworkflow
Akiyo Noguchi of Japan celebrates after competing in the Bouldering during Combined Women's Final on day ten of the IFSC Climbing World Championships at the Esforta Arena Hachioji on August 20, 2019 in Hachioji, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)
(Picture by 2019 Getty Images)

Yeah you’re old. But old enough to make your Olympic debut?

At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics athletes are proving that age is no barrier to being the best.

Take 57-year-old People's Republic of China table tennis star NI Xialian for example, Ni is heading into her fifth Olympic Games 36 years after claiming her first world title in Tokyo, breaking all sorts of records as she goes.

Amazing to think that table tennis will also boast the youngest Olympian at Tokyo 2020 in Syrian Arab Republic's Hend Zaza who qualified when she was 11 years old. 11!

Then there’s another 57-year-old to look out for in equestrian and double Olympic gold medallist Phillip Dutton who’s saddling up for an eighth Olympic Games.

And while we’re on equestrians, how about Australia’s Mary Hanna who at 66 years young will become the first woman to make six Australian Olympic Teams in Tokyo - she's the oldest Olympian at Tokyo 2020.

In other sports there’s the incredible story of two-time cancer survivor Jake Gibb who’ll become the oldest man on Olympic beach volleyball sand at 45. Shout-out to basketball legend Sue Bird too who’s going for a fifth women’s basketball gold medal on her way to 41, and the evergreen 46-year-old gymnast Oksana Chusovitina who's also made an eighth Olympic Games.

But while we won’t see the Godfather of skateboard Tony Hawk (53) or surf pioneer Kelly Slater (49) compete at their sports’ grand Olympic debuts, there are inspirational athletes defying the passing of time throughout the Games.

For anyone who thinks they’re too old to try something new, here are seven athletes in their 30s and 40s making Olympic debuts, out to inspire us all at Tokyo 2020.

1. Rune ‘The Danish Destroyer’ Glifberg (46) - Skateboarding

Rune Gilberg will rock up to Tokyo 2020 with a wealth of experience behind him.

The oldest qualifier in skateboarding is known as ‘The Danish Destroyer’, and he’s been around long enough to have lost to Tony Hawk at the very first X Games in 1995 finishing third in the vert event which Hawk won in Rhode Island.

Born in 1974, Glifberg turned pro in 1990 and has been X Games champ twice, rolling to 12 titles in all.

And maybe coolest of all, he was in the very first Tony Hawk Pro Skater game for the original PlayStation in 1999.

Watch out for Glifberg at Tokyo 2020, one of the originals who's helped skateboarding get to where it is today.

2. Sofía Mulánovich (38) - Surfing

From one board to another, Peruvian surfing star Sofía Mulánovich is all out to seize a maiden surfing gold medal at the surfing’s debut in Tokyo.

The two-time ISA World Surfing Games champion has a shot at bringing home the big one.

Born by the beach in Punta Hermosa, an hour from the capital Lima, Mulánovich was inspired by watching her mother surf - the only woman on the waves at the time.

She grew up surrounded by surfers, her father and older brothers were keen too, and Sofía was riding waves by the age of four.

Now 38, she can write the family name into surfing’s history books forever by securing a podium place in Tokyo.

No easy task when she’ll go up against the likes of World No.1 Carissa Moore, the fast-rising Johanne Defay and Australian double-threat Sally Fitzgibbons and Stephanie ‘Happy’ Gilmore.

But with experience on her side, Mulanovich knows she can make waves in Tokyo.

3. NOGUCHI Akiyo (32) - Sport climbing

From the surf to the turf, Noguchi Akiyo grew up on a cattle farm scaling trees, shimmying up farm buildings and even climbing cows. Eventually, her dad got the message and built her a climbing wall in a barn when she was 11.

By the age of 16 a young Akiyo was already flashing up walls on the World Cup circuit and steadily becoming one of the most consistent campaigners.

Now she has 21 World Cup titles to her name and 68 podium finishes overall.

At the 2019 Worlds, Noguchi finished second only to climbing luminary Janja Garnbret in both bouldering and combined.

And while this season hasn't been Noguchi's best ever, she knows she's in with a shot with an entire nation behind her lifting her towards the summit.

She told Olympics.com that in 2016 before the big announcement that sport climbing was going to be included in Tokyo 2020, she was contemplating hanging up the powder bag.

“When I heard the news, I decided to compete for four more years," she said.

"I’ll give everything for the Tokyo 2020 Games and to end my career there. It will be the first time sport climbing is held at an Olympic [Games].

“Moreover, it will be held in Japan, my home country. If it was held in another country, or if it were not the first-ever Olympic sport climbing event, I think my motivation would have been different.”

4. Bassa Mawem (36) Sport climbing

Noguchi won’t be the senior climber on the wall in Japan though, that honour falls to 36-year-old French scaler Bassa Mawem.

Unlike most climbers about to take part in sport climbing’s great Olympic moment, Mawem didn’t start climbing until he was 15, but his rise was rapid, proving a natural in all disciplines and impressing on tour.

So impressive that he even got the call to participate in the first-ever French Ninja Warrior show.

A thrill-seeking speed specialist, Mawem is sure to excite in Tokyo, and he won’t be alone, his brotherMickael Mawem will also be scuttling up the walls alongside him.

Their shared Instagram account will give you a taste of what’s to come.

5. Antonio Díaz (41) – Karate

Talking about putting on a show, at 41 Venezuelan karateka Antonio Díaz has been waiting a lifetime for this moment, and now he’s ready for his Olympic debut at karate’s Olympic debut in the birthplace of the martial art.

Díaz is a heavily decorated two-time world champion and holds the Guinness World Record for being the only athlete that has been on the podium eight times in a row at the World Karate Championships.

“Basically, the time for which I have lengthened my sports career is for the Tokyo Games,” he told the Tokyo 2020 official website.

“Throughout my years of competing, I have had several moments when I have thought about retirement. But I think the Olympic Games, the most important sporting event, and especially happening in Japan, the land of karate, is the perfect place to end it," he explained.

An Olympic medal would be the crown jewel in a sparkling career and a just reward for a lifetime service raising the profile of karate in Venezuela, Latin America, and beyond.

6. Daniel Dhers (36) – BMX freestyle

Díaz isn’t the only Venezuelan veteran looking for a golden goodbye: 36-year-old Daniel Dhers is a BMX freestyle high-flyer looking to make an indelible mark at the discipline’s first-ever Olympic appearance.

A five-time X Games champion and 2019 Pan Am podium topper, Dhers is another athlete who’s held on for a shot at Olympic glory.

"I want to be part of the Olympic Games because it is the only thing left for me to do," he told Tokyo 2020.

"I've been a pro for 15 or 16 years. I've competed in practically every event in the world. I never thought that the Olympics could be part of my career.

"When there were conversations about adding this discipline in the Olympic program, I thought it would be in 2024, and so I'd be retired. But when they said it would be in 2020, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"Back then I was thinking of quitting the sport, but when they announced it, I told myself 'I have enough gasoline in the tank, so let's try'."

But he isn't here to take part, he's here to take over - the 'Superman' move he pulled off at the Pan Ams in Lima was unforgettable and he'll have a few tricks up his sleeve in Tokyo.

"Qualifying is a success on its own, but obviously I want to try to win a medal. That would be the icing on the cake in my career.”

7. Sandra Sánchez (39) – Karate Kata

From BMX big air to calm and control in the dojo, at 33 they told Sandra Sanchez she was too old for karate kata, now at 39 she’s reigning world champion and in the shape of her life ahead of karate’s big Olympic bow at Tokyo 2020.

In May 2021 Sanchez won her sixth straight European title in Croatia and looked in mean form, then in June was voted the World Games Athlete of the Month for May on the back of that performance at the European Karate Championships.

With her focus trained on that gold medal, the Spanish karateka could be set for a historic moment in Japan.

Breaking down age barriers

With giant leaps being made in sports science, nutrition, physical and mental and wellness, athletes are breaking through age barriers and going on for longer than ever before.

You don’t have to look far to find examples: Roger Federer, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafa Nadal, to name a few.

Tokyo 2020 is set to reinforce to what we all already know: Age doesn’t define you, age shouldn’t stop you from following your dreams.

Yeah you’re old. But old enough to make your Olympic debut?

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