"How was it? I'm ready to go again!" said 101 year old Mary Anne Hardison after her I-can-do-what-you-can-do paraglide flight for her birthday. By taking that ride Hardison etched her name in the Guinness World Record book as the oldest female to tandem paraglide. Maybe you and I have never thought of setting a Guinness World Record but, like Mary, many people have. Some record holders our age, however, probably never imagined they'd become the oldest: teacher, sisters, married couple, violinist and so forth but by the sheer progression of time and good fortune to be alive they find themselves with that distinction.
Guinness athletic record holders, like other inspiring older athletes I've written about, show us what the human body can do in later years if it's nurtured and tested. Many of these athletes started their training after the age of 50! Look at this video, for instance, of Johanna Quuas, the world's oldest gymnast. As she tells The Daily Mail, she started training at 56 and hopes her record, "...inspires others to realise it's never too late." The oldest female body builder, Edith Wilma Conner, started training in her 60's to beat the inactivity of her data entry work. She competed for the first time at 65. "It was something I could do by myself, for myself, it was a tension releaser," she told the Toronto Sun last year.
Some Guinness records are fun. For instance, The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies has boasted oldest professional chorus line and oldest still performing show girl throughout it's run. The Follies, which is closing it's doors in 2014, features entertainers over the age of 55. Listen to this interview with Dorothy Kloss who held oldest performing showgirl award while dancing with the Follies at the age of 86. Today, the Tivoli Lovelies, an Australian group, holds the record for oldest professional chorus line. Both troups boast performers who danced professionally in younger years and came back to raise money for a cause or to simply enjoy dance again. In a feature story on Tivoli chorus girl Vicki Charleston, she tells Aussie Theatre. com, “At 79-and-a-half, it’s getting harder, yes. But I think it’s like everything in life, whether it’s football or journalism or medicine, if it’s your path, as long as you love it, you’ll stay involved.”
Records can be set for just about everything as Ashrita Furhman proves. He holds the record for most records held by the same individual. Some of his records include Most Marshmallows Caught With Chopsticks, Most Balloons Inflated With the Nose, Most Potatoes Sliced While Hopping On a Shovel, and Number of Meters Run In Clogs all of which he set at the age of 58. He currently holds 163 Guinness World Records though he's set over 450 since he began trying in 1979 . Why does he do it? To inspire others. In 2010 he told the Wall Street Journal, "If you have a dream, you can achieve your dream. I'm living my dream."
Some records are harbingers of the future. They speak about our extending lifespans. For instance, a British man holds the record for oldest person to have a total hip replacement. He assumed that distinction at the age of 102. In New Jersey, earlier this year, 40 people set a record for Largest Single Gathering of Centenarians. The oldest? 107. Her secret? “Oh, I was never married. That’s really the reason I’ve lived to be 107,” she told New Jersey Jewish News. The title of Oldest Living Person in the World now belongs to Misao Okawa, 115, Japan. The oldest person in America is Jeralean Talley just a few months behind at 114. Over 400 people in America are now supercentenarians at 110 or older.
Some records are won by people dealing with other concerns. Julia Gnuse, known as "The Illustrated Lady," now 54, began tattooing her body to cover up scars resulting from a rare disorder called porphyria. Cutaneous porphyria often creates blistering or swelling on skin surfaces and an intolerance to sunshine. Gnuse's doctor first suggested tattoos in a solid color as a kind of second skin but that didn't work. Gnuse then collaborated with an illustrative color tattoo artist whose work brought her relief and the ability, at last, to enjoy the sun. 95% of her body is covered with illustrations. Record setter William Pace of California was shot in the head by his brother when they were children and the bullet was never removed. He had facial paralysis and damage to his eye but lived a full life and received Guinness recognition for living longest with a bullet in his head in his late nineties. He held that record until he died last year at 103.
These special people show us it's not just about the record. Whether it's Gnuse pursuing a creative answer to her medical condition, Conner seeking relief from job pressure, or 40 centenarians riding gurneys and wheelchairs to a single location to set the record of their lives all these people demonstrate that living to the fullest at every stage in life matters. Their records evidence strength of human spirit and testify to the evolution of our culture and concept of aging. Whether you've ever thought of setting a Guinness record or not these special feats document the fact that we're all part of a miraculous and innovative time. Record setters we may not be but, by virtue of being alive, we're members of a miraculous generation pushing the limits of science and ability. In a sense that makes each one of us part of a collective record that's attained and exceeded every day of our lives.
Update August 14 2013, Bolivia believes the oldest man alive is a herder living near Lake Titicaca. If so, his secret to longevity? Walking and being around animals.
Update March 2014 The oldest woman in the world says longevity is pretty simple.