THEY’RE known as ‘The Irish Twins’ — identical sisters who have been competing in Masters Athletics competitions for decades.
It’s a fitting tag, because though UK-based Dorothy Mc Lennon is separated by the Irish Sea from her Dublin-based twin, Sheila Champion, the 79-year-old women have been united in sport around the globe for the past 30 years, scooping many medals in several categories.
For them it’s an excuse to meet up and travel together; their next port of call is the Irish indoor championships in January and then the Poland European championships in March.
However, 30 years ago — with both of them married and rearing a family in two different countries — they were each independently drawn to athletics in their 40s. Back then that could have been considered a late stage in life to become passionate about sport, but the sisters are having the last laugh at that biased assumption, as they face their 80th birthday next September.
Sheila got involved in a Bushy Park athletics group and ran in the first Dublin mini-marathon, 31 years ago. Dorothy, at the age of 49, was inspired by seeing an 82-year-old man complete the London marathon and decided to give it a go.
That can-do spirit is shared by both. It’s still relatively unusual to see women of their age competing athletically; many of their peers are happier going for a regular walk. It’s even more striking to see two — who look alike — making such determined strides; Sheila currently with the javelin, and Dorothy in the heptathlon.
It demands huge discipline to train hard. Multi award-winning Dorothy — who does two hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening, three hours Sunday morning, and stretching and conditioning one hour a day, three times a week — puts it bluntly: “Let’s face it — if you don’t train, you get nowhere!”
She pooh-poohs the notion that women might fear frailty as they age, saying it’s all in the positive attitude.
While Dorothy has not been challanged by ill health, Sheila has suffered three strokes over the past 17 years — none of which has stopped her in her tracks — an even more potent illustration of the positive determination that drives these sisters.
“Anyone who has one or two — not to talk of three, strokes — is left with something afterwards,” says Sheila. “After the first one I had to teach myself to walk again but it never dawned on me NOT to be able to walk again. There is a way around everything.”
While they both have practised yoga for years Sheila believes they were “born supple”. Whether flexibility is in their nature or they have nurtured it, would no doubt be of interest to the scientists at the twins research unit in St Thomas Hospital in London, where the sisters have been sporadically called in to undergo various tests over the past 15 years.
It’s not odd to them that at a similar time in their lives they both wholeheartedly embraced sports and that, now, both grandmothers, they still give it as good as they’ve got. Neither of them see themselves as inspiring, though it’s a word often used.
“Inspiring?” says Dorothy. “I’m no different to anybody else. Just join a group — try a little bit out yourself first but it’s better if you have somebody to train with, like running on a Monday night, or whatever.”
One woman who finds the twins a true inspiration, is 65-year-old British photographer Alex Rotas, who has just produced a book called Growing Old Competitively, which features beautiful pictures of masters athletes — including a glowing Sheila, after she won gold in the javelin competition of the European Masters Games in Italy in 2011.
“I was really motivated to challenge some of the assumptions associated with the social construct of ageing, assumptions that link getting older with decline, passivity, increasing helplessness and physical and mental deterioration,” says Alex. “I am in such awe of these athletes — the training regimens they follow through their 70s and 80s — their determination, their sense of purpose, their spirit and their joy.
“They show too that it’s possible to look wonderful without pretending to be younger than you are. Competitive veteran sportsmen and women have all the lines and wrinkles that come with their age but they look amazing as they push themselves physically and mentally to achieve new goals.”