What sports can someone start doing at 30 and become world class at?
July 28, 2014 6:09 AM   Subscribe

Are there any? The only possibilities I can immediately think of are Lawn Bowls and Shooting. And maybe varieties of race car driving (I'm not sure if there's a physical fitness component to this at all?) Is there anything you could say this of that IS a more physical sport?
posted by Kirn to Health & Fitness (52 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Curling. Darts and pool, if they count as sports. Maybe golf?
posted by orange swan at 6:16 AM on July 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My mother actually qualified for the 96 Olympics in Atlanta in archery. She hadn't even touched a bow until her mid 40's when she dated a deer hunter. After a few years she won her local competitions, and then state ones, beating all women and all men with a cheap little $200 hunting bow.

She showed up for Olympic qualifying with that same little $200 bow and qualified for the last spot on the team against all others using multi-thousand dollar specialty bows. She never made it to Atlanta due to health problems, but I still get a smile thinking of my Mom up there, with her cheap little hunting bow beating out all these "experts" with their precision equipment.
posted by sanka at 6:16 AM on July 28, 2014 [126 favorites]

Weightlifting, but depends on a high genetic roll.
posted by wrok at 6:17 AM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

According to Wikipedia, Geena Davis picked up archery around age 41. Two years later, she almost qualified for the US Olympic Team for the Sydney games.
posted by akk2014 at 6:17 AM on July 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

posted by fearnothing at 6:18 AM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Very recently in the news: Marathon running.
posted by gnimmel at 6:20 AM on July 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

Golf actually. My grandfather took it up in his forties, and he became so good he was invited to go on the senior tour. He declined in favor of running numbers, and later owning a pot farm.

If you like it and have a talent for it, golf is a completely pleasant diversion.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:20 AM on July 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

Curling does sound like a good candidate. The physical requirements aren't overly high, as long as you have a decent sense of balance and enough stamina to sweep the lanes. The biggest component is mental -- it's a lot like billiards in that a good innate sense of geometry and tactical positioning is helpful. Actually, if you consider billiards a "sport" that would be a candidate too.

There absolutely is a physical component to auto racing, in spite of the popular belief. Formula 1 drivers, probably the pinnacle of the sport, have to exert both large amounts of physical strength and lightning reflexes whilst under incredibly hostile conditions -- massive lateral and longitudinal g-forces and scorchingly hot temperatures, while wrapped up in layers of fire-resistant clothing. The best drivers in the world almost universally get their starts in karts while of single-digit age. You can get pretty good at a club level as an adult, but that's probably about it.

Shooting, as mentioned above, either bow or firearm, is another possible candidate. Perhaps something equestrian?
posted by jammer at 6:30 AM on July 28, 2014

Came in to say running, if you are extraordinarily talented.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:31 AM on July 28, 2014

Yes, equestrian riders skew older.
posted by jaguar at 6:32 AM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Definitely golf.
posted by getawaysticks at 6:44 AM on July 28, 2014

John Dane III sailed in the 2008 Olympics when he was 58. Translation: There's still hope!
posted by bassomatic at 6:49 AM on July 28, 2014

I vaguely remember an article about an older guy (35+) who decided he wanted to compete in the olympics and started shopping around through different events to see what he might be competitive in. I think he settled on skeleton (or bobsled?) because the ability to access training facilities creates a very high bar to entry. I think he made it to one of the games (otherwise it would be a boring story) but I can't seem to find the story anywhere.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:50 AM on July 28, 2014

Prince Philip took up carriage driving at the age of 50 and did alright.
posted by Segundus at 6:50 AM on July 28, 2014

Distance running. The longer the distance, the less age holds you back. Many of the top ultramarathon runners right now are in their forties.
posted by hollyholly at 6:55 AM on July 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Are we talking a general athlete looking to specialize or a couch potato?
posted by michaelh at 7:01 AM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Fencing. Veteran fencing starts at 40. You can be a world champion in 10 years. :) It does involve some cardio conditioning but there are people who are still fencing in their 90s.
posted by JuliaKM at 7:05 AM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Following-up on hollyholly's post, see this amazing story about an Australian sheep farmer named Cliff Young. He started competing at the age of 61 (!!) and revolutionized the sport of ultramarathon running. He was used to running very long distances on his sheep ranch, and he ran – and won – a five-day ultramarathon without stopping to sleep.
Today, the "Young-shuffle" has been adopted by ultra-marathon runners because it is considered more energy-efficient. At least three champions of the Sydney to Melbourne race have used the shuffle to win the race. Furthermore, during the Sydney to Melbourne race, modern competitors do not sleep. Winning the race requires runners to go all night as well as all day, just like Cliff Young.
Someone should make a movie about this guy.
posted by akk2014 at 7:06 AM on July 28, 2014 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I came in to say fencing, too. I started in my 30s and happened to be not very good (it took me almost a year to stick my lunge without toppling over!) but I can easily see how someone better suited to it could become world-class.

Also, shooting for sure.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:15 AM on July 28, 2014

Competitive Trail Riding (CTR).

"Competitive trail riding (CTR) is an equestrian sport where riders cover a marked trail for a distance that is usually between 15 and 40 miles per day. "
posted by herox at 7:16 AM on July 28, 2014

Best answer: Relevant previouslies:

Do I have a shot at the Olympics?
I'm 24. Let's say I wanted to have a shot at the Olympics, in any sport, at some point in the future. Are my chances over? Is there a sport I could start now, dedicate the next few years to, and become good enough to be a contender? What sport should that be? (I'm not picky.)
I'm interested in the way that athletic performance changes with age.
I'm interested in the way that athletic performance changes with age, and how this varies amongst different sports. Can anyone point me to some data sources on age-specific performance for any sports? What about age at retirement for pro/semi-pro athletes in different sports?
posted by zamboni at 7:18 AM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

No quite the same thing, but Clara Hughes switched from being an olympic metallist in cycling (2 bronze, 1996, 2000) to being a long-track speed skater at age 28. She won three medals in skating, a bronze in 2002, then, a gold and a bronze in 2006.

The cheat is she actually learned to skate first, but gave it up to cycle for a decade. She then made her "comeback" in skating.
posted by bonehead at 7:19 AM on July 28, 2014

The thing about rowing is if you want to pick it up at that level in just a few years you need to have been a very strong athlete in another endurance/explosive sport before. People who have picked it up immediately in Canada include former speedskaters, figure skaters, cross country skiiers, and cyclists. Also swimmers.
posted by hepta at 7:22 AM on July 28, 2014

also, fishing.
posted by herox at 7:23 AM on July 28, 2014

posted by h00py at 7:31 AM on July 28, 2014

I don't know if it is the guy you are referring to craven_morehead, but it sounds sort of similar to
Eddie The Eagle Edwards
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 7:35 AM on July 28, 2014

It is true that competitors in equestrian events tend to skew older, but I still think most people started from a young age. However, you definitely have more "competitive years" than you would for a lot other sports, and those who reach the elite levels often peak later in life. I believe it's also one of the only (if not the only) Olympic sport where men and women compete against each other. (That last part isn't actually relevant to your question, but it is kind of interesting.)
posted by litera scripta manet at 7:39 AM on July 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Roller derby. It is a full contact, physically challenging team sport. A lot of high level competitive skaters are in their 30s.
posted by steinwald at 7:40 AM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Equestrian is indeed the only Olympic sport where men and women compete directly against each other. And yes, while you can be competitive well past 30 (riders in their 40s-60s regularly make Olympic squads) you pretty much have to have that foundation from childhood. I think that riders exemplify the "work smarter, not harder" aspect--much of elite riding comes from experience, anticipation, and knowing exactly how your horse will react. You need to put a lot of years in to have that level, more than you need a singular physical skill aside from balance.

But maybe modern pentathalon would be a good sport to pick up later in life? I think the "jack of all trades" aspect (certainly the riding quality is... subpar, for the most part) lends itself to generally fit people who haven't necessarily been doing something since toddlerhood.
posted by TwoStride at 7:58 AM on July 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Disc golf isn't an Olympic sport, but there is a professional tour with full-time athletes. It's more about technique than physical strength, so age really isn't much of an issue.
posted by Ufez Jones at 8:28 AM on July 28, 2014

Burt Munro set three motorcycle land speed records when he was in his 60s.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:32 AM on July 28, 2014

Response by poster: What a fantastic stream of answers - thanks everybody. michaelh - couch potato answers please. Keep 'em coming!
posted by Kirn at 8:51 AM on July 28, 2014

Some thoughts on fitness and race car driving.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:56 AM on July 28, 2014

Sailing requires a fair degree of physical fitness but it's not something that an average person couldn't achieve with hard work. It's not a genetic dice-roll, at least not in the sense that you have to be superhuman. If you were in a position to do it regularly, which would require living somewhere with year-round sailing and probably at some point purchasing (at least fractional ownership of) a decent racing boat, and had the finances and flexibility to compete in the right events as you improved, I suspect you could have a shot at an Olympic slot with 10 years of concerted effort. Though the Olympics are arguably not really the pinnacle of the sport — true of quite a few Olympic sports, actually — I think the Americas Cup or the Volvo Ocean Race are, depending on exactly what kind of sailing you're into.

A few years ago, a couple of (very rich) dudes basically went from zero to the Volvo Ocean Race in less than 10 years. In the case of one of them I think it was more like 5. They started in college, but I think you could do it as an adult if you wanted to (and had a few million bucks to burn).

Polo, golf, and other traditional pastimes of the not-entirely-idle rich also strike me as more limited by access and expense issues than genetics, but I know less about them.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:24 AM on July 28, 2014

A few years ago there was a rider who competed at Badminton International Horse Trials (this has a higer difficulty level than the Olympic three day event I think) who was 38 years old and had only taken up riding four years previously.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 9:28 AM on July 28, 2014

"Croquet, darts, billiards and gliding" are all classified as sports, not games, in the UK. There is a move to recognize bridge as a sport as well; the International Olympic Committee declared that the World Bridge Federation is a "Recognized Sport Organization." It's grueling, true, and it takes years to become expert! Not perhaps as actually physically athletic as it might be however.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:47 AM on July 28, 2014

On CNN earlier, the marathon. Grand Legends of Surfing. Air Race World Championship.
posted by brent at 10:39 AM on July 28, 2014

Broomball. I know people who didn't start playing until after college who have played at the world championships.
posted by mmascolino at 11:09 AM on July 28, 2014

Very few triathletes pick up the sport before 30, and success is one part natural ability,* one part training, and one part expensive gear.**

*Like other endurance sports, the physical peak can last well into one's 40s.

**Someone with a $10,000 bike is going to have a very easy time passing some on a $1,000 bike going uphill, everything else equal, and young people do not generally have the money for that kind of purchase.

posted by psoas at 2:20 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

More on sailing: there was a man, Australian I think, who took up sailing later in life and won an Olympic medal. However, he was racing a kind of boat (5.5 meter) that's no longer in the Olympics. The current boat lineup requires a lot more athleticism and stamina. I think it would be difficult now.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:31 PM on July 28, 2014

nth fencing. The cardio requirements are totally manageable throughout your life, and good technique and mental focus beats raw athleticism any day.
posted by katrielalex at 3:14 PM on July 28, 2014

Regarding fencing - in Foil and Sabre it would be a lot more difficult than in Epee. The former two, especially sabre, have become incredibly rapid sports. Epee on the other hand has always leaned more towards favouring cunning over speed which naturally favours older competitors.
posted by fearnothing at 3:28 PM on July 28, 2014

Polo, golf, and other traditional pastimes of the not-entirely-idle rich also strike me as more limited by access and expense issues than genetics, but I know less about them.

You can't buy your way to bring good at golf or polo, believe me people have tried. Polo in particular, there are very few world class players that didn't start riding around the time they began walking. Most pros aren't rich though interestingly, they're born to pro parents and grow up in the sport. They make their money playing on rich peoples's teams.

Equestrian sports in general require that you start young. Michael Matz started in his teens and that was considered very late (he competed internationally for years). You could probably learn to be decent enough to do pentathlon maybe if you started older.
posted by fshgrl at 4:08 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

craven_morhead, you're thinking of Jon Montgomery. He won gold in skeleton at the Vancouver Olympics and celebrated by walking thru the athlete's village in Whistler drinking beer from a pitcher. He was looking for a sport he could represent Canada in and watched skeleton and got hooked. He was in his mid-twenties when he started.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:32 PM on July 28, 2014

Seven years ago Steve Way weighed 16 1/2 stone and had high-blood pressure, a 20-a-day habit and an addiction to takeaways and chocolate. So, like many other people, he began running to get fit. Only he didn’t stop. And 26,000 miles later – more than the circumference of the globe – and at the grand age of 40, he has been selected to run the marathon for England at next month’s Commonwealth Games.

He finished 10th. It's perhaps not quite world class, but it's not a kick in the arse off it. IMHO, criterion number 1 is that you need to pick a sport that you love enough to train full-time hours at, even while you're working another job. After that, your chosen sport needs to be one that suits your body type and talents. There's almost nothing that's off limits given the right predisposition and dedication.
posted by Jakey at 6:10 PM on July 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I just happen to be watching Idris Elba: King of Speed right now (Idris Elba plus motorsports = AMAZING) and he's talking to some famous former race driver and the famous guy laughed in his face when Elba asked if he could start now, at age 40, and become good enough to do a real race in a few years.
posted by TwoStride at 7:27 PM on July 28, 2014

There totally is a movie about Cliff Young: Cliffy
posted by trialex at 10:10 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd like to mention the achievement of someone who really impresses me... Alex Zanardi.
He was a racing driving until he had a crash in 2001, at the age of 32 which resulted in both his legs being amputated. In the 2012 ParaOlympics, at the age of 45, he won 2 golds & a silver for Italy in handcycling.
posted by cantthinkofagoodname at 12:24 AM on July 29, 2014

just to tie on, yes, as someone who was formerly at a very, very high level of equestrian competition, let me reassure you that I was riding horses before I could reliably walk. I haven't been on horseback since my mid-twenties and even though I am at a pretty high level of fitness as a competitive bike racer now (in my mid 40s) there is absolutely NO WAY I could make any sort of comeback to the levels I formerly rode at. It not only requires a lot of physical fitness and adaptation to ride at an Olympic level, it also involves levels of courage, risk management, empathy with the animal and continual engagement and reinforcement of skills.

the riders who are in their 40s and 50s at the Olympics have been competitive equestrians their entire lives. Dressage, particularly is a nuanced skill set that takes a lifetime in the saddle to do well.

not to mention buckets and buckets of cash and the "politics" of knowing the right people to get the right rides, but that's beside the point. An Olympic calibre horse is going to run you well into the six (if not seven these days) figure territory and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:56 AM on July 30, 2014

I'll second triathlons. The running is usually a manageable distance, while the other two -- swimming and bicycling -- are so low impact that you can really push yourself. Bicycling is also where you're most likely to gain time over your fellow competitors. You get the added benefit of becoming a better swimmer, a sport you can enjoy well into your later years.
posted by Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra at 12:47 AM on August 1, 2014

> And maybe varieties of race car driving (I'm not sure if there's a physical fitness component to this at all?)

There is a tremendous physical fitness component. It's no coincidence that many professional race car drivers are also Iron Man finishers. The body is put under significant acceleration stress and requires elite-level core strength, special neck strengthening exercises, and huge stamina. They're in insulating fire safety suits sitting in cockpits that can exceed 100 degrees F for potentially several hours.
posted by Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra at 12:53 AM on August 1, 2014

Pole dancing. Some gymnastics experience helps, but it's not impossible to get really good at it starting late. There are world championships for it too and the athletic displays are stunning.
posted by divabat at 7:20 PM on August 2, 2014

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