Celebrating International Women’s Day is about championing women.

Who better to talk to than the woman giving a platform to female Masters athletes by photographing them during their happiest moments when practising their sport. Alex Rotas’ photography gives hope to others by showcasing how ‘getting older’ can be a synonym for ‘being fit’, ‘being happy’, ‘having fun’ or ‘feeling strong’. Life doesn’t stop until you stop. There are a whole lot of opportunities out there to live your best life – at any age.

Where did your love for photographing older athlete start? What was the trigger?

In my 50s I was an academic researching visual images and I’d started looking at sporting imagery. As I approached 60, so some 15 years ago now, and as a masters tennis player myself, I thought it would be fun to do some research on older sportsmen and women and the way they were and are represented in the media. I put  ‘older sportsmen and women’ into the images section of the Google search bar and waited to see what would turn up.
To my surprise and dismay nothing remotely to do with sport came up at all. That word ‘older’ over-rode everything else. All I got were incredibly depressing images of elderly people slumped in care home chairs, looking immobile and miserable. This may have been part of the ‘getting old’ story but I knew there was much more than that: I had friends  who were masters swimmers as well as tennis players and I knew there loads of extremely active older people ‘out there’, even if they didn’t feature in the dominant visual imagery that dominated our popular culture at the time.
It seemed like something big was really missing! I wasn’t a photographer and I didn’t even have a camera but I love being a beginner and learning new things. I’d learn about photography, I thought, and I’d learn about sports I knew nothing about and this would be an exciting new project for me. I was right. I did learn about both these things, and it has been, and still is, an exciting project for me to be engaged in. What I had no idea about were the personal connections and friendships that I’d make in the warm and generous sporting communities that would welcome me. That’s the immeasurable gift this project has brought me and for which I am so very deeply grateful.

What role did sport play in your life when you grew up ?

I was always a sporty child and a sporty teenager. In my first ten years of life I wanted to be a swimmer: my goal was to swim in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo! Well, that didn’t happen but I did grow up with a love of swimming that has lasted to this day (I’m just back from the pool actually as I write this).

Then in my teenage years I discovered  tennis and started aiming for Wimbledon. That did happen. I have dual Greek and British citizenship and I started to play in Greece during the summer holidays from the age of 14 and represented the country at what was then known as the Federation Cup (it’s now the Fed Cup) and in the junior event at Wimbledon in 1967. Those were the ‘shamateur’ days and a far cry from the professionalism of today, but then it was a passport for me to travel the world. I absolutely loved playing in different tournaments (on ‘the circuit’ as The Tour was then known) and seeing new places, making new friends.

I continued playing in international events through my early 20s and I came back to tennis later on at masters level. The first event I photographed was the European Masters Games in Lignano, Italy, in 2011, and I had an athlete’s pass as well as a media pass to enable me to play in the tennis event as well as take my first set of photographs. I’m still working on my backhand, the stroke that was always my weakness. So I completely understand how sportswomen in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s want to continue to improve and hone their skills and to challenge themselves with rigorous and demanding training regimens. Of course they will! The sporting drive doesn’t change with the passage of years even if inevitably you have to adapt your training programme as you get older.

What is for you the most important message you want to bring across with your photos?

The key message that I have taken and learned from the older sportswomen I photograph is that getting old can be a time of opportunity, joy, and growth, of learning new skills and making new friendships. Yes it can present its challenges but they are not inevitably the whole story. Getting old, just like being young, is never all one thing or the other: the full story is nuanced and far more interesting and exciting than the simplistic binary of young=good vs old=bad.

My other key message, really is about joy. The sportswomen (and men) I photograph  are full of joy and I hope it comes across in my images. Sport is about so much more than physical achievement and medals. Of course there is the satisfaction that comes from pushing yourself physically, and winning medals gives a special buzz, no question. But ask any masters sportsperson what keeps them coming back for more and they will tell you it’s the community they have found that they just can’t leave. You make special friendships with people who share the same passion as you: you know what it takes to train and compete, you understand each other and respect each other. These friendships underpin masters sports events and mean that they radiate joy. It’s palpable. And it’s infectious.

As someone lucky enough to have witnessed and photographed masters competitions from close-up, I know how true this is. Masters sport has given me some special friendships too as the different sporting communities have welcomed me, and I count them, and the joy they have brought me, as a massive blessing in my life.

How does this ‘work’ inspire you in your ambitions and goals?

You’re right to put the word ‘work’ in inverted commas: it really is hard work for me but it brings me such pleasure and joy, and has connected me with so many wonderful people across the world I’d never otherwise have met,  that it never really feels like ‘work’, in the negative sense.

Meeting so many people who concentrate so hard on their physical training has inspired me to maintain my own fitness regimen myself, modest though it is in comparison with theirs. I smile when I think that I’m probably one of the fittest people of my age group if you compare me with the population as a whole, but I’m one of the least fit of all when it comes to comparing me with the masters athletes I photograph and mix with!

Most of the sportspeople I’ve met of my age are coping with injuries and illnesses so that their training is dominated by rehab and recovery and they set their longer-term goals within this framework. A lot of the time, after set-backs, they are simply happy to be back, competing with their friends again. I’ve learned from them. I no longer get disheartened when new health issues present themselves to me: I’m learning not to catastrophise. (Catastrophising used to be my default strategy!)

So I don’t really have overarching ambitions and goals. If I can carry on doing the work I’m doing, and spreading the word about the wonderful people I photograph, I’ll carry on being very happy, just as I am now.

How do you see yourself and your work in 5 – 10 years? What’s achieved if you consider it being successful ?

I’m 75 this year and I don’t really do 5 and 10 year goals! I’d love to carry on doing what I’m doing now for as long as I can and I’m happy to see if and how it unfolds and develops.

I never thought I’d be involved in film-making, for example, but the opportunity to work with a wonderful film-maker, Danielle Sellwood, of https://www.finditfilm.com presented itself, and together we have made a film called Younger following four female track and field athletes aged 69-85, that we’re hoping to release publicly very soon. (You can see a taster here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_4b5yMAyKs ) I could never have foreseen this or anticipated it and had it as a goal: I met Danielle and we clicked. She felt there was a film to be made about the women I photograph, and it happened. I love that it worked out this way and I hope there will be more similar surprises for me ahead!

Success for me is to see more awareness of what’s available for older people, especially those who are 60+ and for whom the general popular narrative is often depressing or patronising or indeed both, in the world of sport. If I can contribute towards this growing awareness, I’ll be very happy.

However, the message I hope I bring goes beyond sport I believe: you can look at older people enjoying their community on the track or pitch, in the ice rink or in the pool, for example, and think well, I may not like sport but I bet there’s a great community I could become part of in the world of music, or singing, or the arts, or whatever it is that I love myself. It’s about welcoming older age as a time when we might have the opportunity to develop hobbies and skills that we enjoy, to expand our horizons and make new, wonderful friends.

On a personal level, I really do love feeling that I’m making a contribution and hopefully bringing some joy to people myself. My photos of masters athletes have been exhibited on hospital corridor walls for example, and I’ve been told that they bring a smile to people’s faces as they pass by, whether they are patients, visitors, doctors, nurses or anyone else who works there. That makes me feel very happy.

What sport would you like to cover that you haven’t covered up until now ?

I’m hoping to cover weight and/or power-lifting soon because so many people have told me what a wonderful community this is too and it seems to be a growing one, especially among women. I’d quite like to have a go, actually!

Do you have a moment or athlete that stood out for you, having a personal impact on yourself? Could you tell us about it?

Several athletes have had a profound impact on me,  but here’s one who stands out: the late, great American track and field middle distance runner Jeanne Daprano. This photo brought our paths together (attached). Jeanne was a legend among legends in the masters athletics world, with multiple American and world records to her name especially in the 400m, 800m and mile events. To me however she was a precious ‘big sister’. I’ll explain how that happened.

I took this picture of her at the 2013 World Masters Games in Turin, Italy at a time when I was new both to my camera and to masters athletics. On that day, I was behind the finish line trying to focus my lens on the lane where there was a shaft of light coming through a hole in the stadium roof. Jeanne was the person who ran into it and I was thrilled with the resulting picture. I had no idea of her super-star status. Really, I just lucked out.

Long story short, we started corresponding, I put the image on the front of a book I published in 2014, and we discovered we shared the same birthday. This was cue to us adopting each other as ‘big and little sister’, addressing and signing our emails as such and me encouraging her to ‘Go, big sis!’ before her races when I was on the side-lines.
In 2018 our birthday fell during the September World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga, Spain, and we arranged to stay in the same hotel so we could celebrate together. We met on the evening of the 16th for a meal at the restaurant, and she brought me a gift. I unwrapped it to find the USA singlet and shorts she’d worn in Turin, a reminder, she wrote, of our companionship alongside each other “in this life-long process of aging”.

A few months later she started experiencing some physical symptoms and by Christmas 2020 her everyday mobility had become compromised. I had recently had hip surgery and most of her messages to me  were asking about that, concerned far more with my own well-being than with dwelling on hers, which she now knew to be the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Nonetheless she admitted that “it looks like my running days are over, and I am having to learn to walk again with the help of carers.” She remained however, “grateful for every movement I can manage.” She always signed off with the words “Running His Race”, and she did so again knowing it was to be a tough spiritual one off-track now, rather than on it.

Imagine how heartbroken I was to discover some two weeks after our last phone conversation, when she was as humble and loving as ever, that she had died. I have so much to be grateful to masters sport for, and gaining a precious big sister, who taught me about acceptance, about friendship and about joy, irrespective of the circumstances, is high at the top of the list. Thank you, dear Jeanne.

How can women encourage each other more to live their best life ?

By acting as examples to each other: showing and sharing what we can do and supporting each other to achieve our individual goals. From competitive masters sportswomen, I hear over and over that in the moment of competition, of course they want to win. But the moment it’s over, they relax into the friendship (and often literally the arms) of their fellow-competitors.

I think that sport is especially important to women of my age and older because we grew up in an era when sport was associated with masculinity: it was something that boys did, but it wasn’t so okay for girls to be competitive and fiercely focused and determined on the sports field. You had to police how you showed your body, you had to be ‘ladylike’. How wonderful it was for me then, when I hit 60, to discover women in their 80s flinging themselves around fearlessly in the long and high jump, in skimpy sports kit what’s more. Amazing!

There’s a saying: you can’t be what you don’t see. Encouraging attendance at masters events and by spreading the word via photography and film, we can broaden women’s experiences of what they see and  help encourage them in turn to do whatever it takes to live their own best life too.

What would need to change or happen in society according to you to embrace these inspiring role models ?

Great question! My experience, talking to young people as well as older people about what I do, showing them my photos and telling them about the inspiring people  I showcase, is that they are all interested!

Older people love to see their contemporaries ‘living their best life’, as you put it. People in mid-life, in their 40s and 50s, always tell me the images and stories give them hope. They are hitting the age where they are starting to feel fearful about what lies ahead. Social pressures make them feel if not ‘old’, certainly not desirably youthful, and they worry about life closing in on them and their horizons diminishing from now on. They may also be caring for elderly parents with health issues. They always say what a tonic it is to have a positive story presented to them about what potentially lies ahead and they feel motivated to work on their own fitness and wellbeing.

And children love being surprised! One 8 year old responded to  seeing an exhibition of my photos by saying to her granny, “these pictures show me  that I can become an old person but not like an old person”! When I have talked at elementary schools and showed my pictures, we always start with them showing me how they’d behave and act if they had to pretend they were an old person (it’s always stooped, hobbling and with a stick). And then we talk about how they’re feeling now after they’ve seen 90 year olds doing the long or high jump. Do they think any differently now?

So what does need to change is the mainstream media getting interested and normalising stories about sport in later life. Occasionally there will be a feature tagged on to the end of the news, showing some exceptional very old person – the older the better! – competing or participating in an unexpected activity or sport. But it’s always presented with a smile, as though to say ‘Aaaaw. Bless him (or her)!’ Patronisingly, in other words.

My hope is just as parasport has become normalised within mainstream media sports  coverage, and women’s football is now shown at peak TV times, we’ll get to the point where there will be coverage of masters sport too. It’ll just be another branch of sport to be celebrated and enjoyed across the life cycle.

What are the skills these older women have that make them accomplish these things?

It’s as much about passion as it is about pre-existing skills, I believe. Masters sportswomen come from many different backgrounds. Some have been stellar sportswomen all their lives, from their teenage years right through to their 70s and beyond. Others discover their sport with their children, maybe because they take them to the local athletics club and then have a go themselves. Others don’t take up the sport they come to love and excel in till they are in their late 70s; after all, with increased longevity they may well still have a good two decades ahead of them to make national and world records as well as new friends. I can give you wonderful examples from all three categories.

It’s once they find the sport they love that I believe they are motivated and driven to work at it, to train and to focus – if that’s their goal – on excellence and medals. But for many the accomplishment lies in simply taking part. I remember photographing a woman in her late 60s in Poland who came in last in a long distance indoor race, which meant she had to run several circuits of the track by herself, given how much slower she was than the rest. But she crossed the line with a smile as radiant as any gold medal winner – and the crowd gave her a massive cheer as she did so. It turned out she’d recovered from major and complex health issues, including surgery, and she was absolutely thrilled just to put on her competition vest and bib. Who is to say that a gold medal is a bigger accomplishment than hers? Certainly not the masters sports community who witnessed her and who cheered her on. It was her love for her sport and for her community that drove her and sustained her and she received this love  back in bucketloads.

That’s what masters sport is all about and my self-appointed mission is to try to get that message across to as many people as I possibly can.

Visit the Facebook page of Alex Rotas or watch the trailer of her recently released movie on YouTube