Raisa Smetanina - Winning Olympic Gold at a Ripe Age
Although the human life span of today is well into the 80s, an athlete's career is usually considered to be over in their mid 30s. There have always been exceptions to this general rule, including some famous athletes like George Foreman and Brett Favre, but, by and large, athletes start going downhill after crossing the 30-year mark.
Due to injuries, muscle loss, weight gain, and Father Time simply refusing to lose, stories like Raisa Smetanina's are very few and far between. So for Olympic fans and athletes, there's a lot to be admired by this woman's impressive 1992 Olympic feat.
Born February 29, 1952 in Mokhcha, Komi ASSR, Raisa Petrovna Smetanina is a former skiing champion for the Soviet/Russian Nordic teams. Raisa was always an athletic child, taking a liking to skiing at a very young age. However, no one around her foresaw such an illustrious career as a skier. Throughout her career, Raisa ended up winning 10 Olympic medals and 12 World Championship medals, including a slew of different skiing championships on the national and international circuits.
Raisa would participate in five separate Olympic Games, four of which as a USSR team member, and one as a Unified Team member. Her 10 Olympic medals make her one of only two women in history to win 10 medals in the Winter Olympics, and Raisa was the first to accomplish this feat. She was also the record holder for the oldest female athlete to ever win Olympic Gold.
Smetanina's Record-Breaking Olympic Performance
Smetanina's Olympic triumphs started in 1976 at the Winter Games in Innsbruck. She claimed two gold medals and one silver medal that year, in the 10km, 4 x 5km, and the 5km respectively. She wasn't thought of as a dominant athlete at the time, but she did display persistence and talent. She had first came to prominence two years prior, winning the World Championships in Falun in 1974. Though the Olympics are a much broader stage and include athletes from across the globe.
In 1980, Raisa's run wasn't as great. She only won a single gold in Lake Placid, via the 5km, and a silver in the 4 x 5km. And while she was still a contender on the world circuit, her stamina started to decline and she was a victim of a few injuries and some mistimed bad luck. Even still, she returned to the Winter Games in 1984 in Sarajevo, but failed to win gold. Instead, she had to settle for 2 silver medals in the 10 and 20km races. 1988 in Calgary signaled an even larger decline, where Smetanina would win a single silver in the 10km and a bronze in the 20km.
Though most athletes would be satisfied with winning any medal on any level, Raisa demanded more of herself. Though in her mid 30s in 1988, most thought that her career was all but over. After all, by the time the 1992 Games rolled around in Albertville, Smetanina would be a 39-year-old athlete competing with athletes barely in their 20s. Time had taken its toll, and simply qualifying for the '92 Games became a feat all on its own.
In 1992, Smetanina had 9 Olympic medals to her name and wanted to pursue a 10th. Yet as a 39-year-old athlete, things were looking bleak. To make matters worse, the national team was undergoing change due to the turmoil in the Soviet Union. Raisa now had to compete with the Commonwealth of Independent States, and they didn't exactly have the world-class athletes of Soviet teams past.
Smetanina entered the 4 x 5km race to little fanfare and even less notoriety. She was a feel-good story on that stage – the 39-year-old who had adopted a never-say-die attitude. But that's about as far as it went. No one gave her any real chance to win. However, in an impressive feat of skiing, Smetanina went to an extra level of competitiveness during her leg of the relay. She dug deep and skied and error-free leg, propelling her team to victory. At the time, Raisa was the oldest female athlete in the history of the Winter Olympics to win a gold medal.