Just a few months younger than her contemporaries and fellow power houses Queen Elizabeth and David Attenborough, Heather Lee is a truly unstoppable Australian.
At 92 years of age, Heather Lee from Sydney believes exercise and nutrition are the secrets to her long-time wellbeing and sporting success and her ability to live an active and independent life.
Ranked number 1 in the world in race walking in her age group, she believes the well-used phrase use it or lose it is now even more important for Aussies than ever before, as our nation is ageing, becoming more sedentary and feeling the mental pressures of everyday life.
In November '18 Heather won the 2019 NSW Senior Australian of the Year Award and she is going to Canberra on Australia Day to find out if she will be our national Senior Australian of the Year in 2019.
Heather's key messages:
"A good diet, a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, a rich social life and you have the basic recipe to nurture your body, mind and spirit."
Having started walking therapeutically after her husband Len died - initially with her friends’ two Rottweilers and later joining a local walking club - Heather was in her late seventies when she began participating in and getting first and second places in her age group in a series of fun runs, among others the Mount Annan Challenge Walk, City2Surf, Mothers Day Classic and Sydney Running Festival. It rapidly became obvious that she was a naturally fast walker - although just how fast was difficult to gauge as there were never many competitors in the same age group.
Heather’s physiotherapist Craig suggested the Australian Masters Games, to be held in Adelaide in October 2011, just a few weeks before her 85th birthday.
She registered for all four “walks” at the Adelaide Masters, not realising “walks” means racewalking until the starter of her first race reminded her! Luckily her fellow competitors and a kind judge were very generous with their encouragement and advice; Heather returned from Adelaide with four gold medals (and no infringements)!
Back home in Sydney Heather discovered that her Adelaide times were very close to the women’s 85-89 Australian and world records and, feeling confident after her Adelaide success, she declared 2012 would be the year for her to try and claim some of those records for herself.
From Bankstown to Canberra
Her first record attempt was in Bankstown in February 2012, where Heather competed in the only listed racewalking event, the 5km, and finished in 42 minutes 05.30,seconds, a new Australian record. Later that year she travelled to the Australian Masters Track and Field Championships in Melbourne and broke three Australian records including her own 5km record (the 1500m in 11m36.90s, the 5km, now in 41m25.40s and the 10km in 84m06s.
Her first two world records, in the 3km and 5km events, as well as her second Australian record in the 10km followed at the Pan Pacific Games in the Gold Coast in November 2012. In 2013 she broke the Australian 10km record for a third time while competing at the Australian Masters Track and Field Championships in Canberra, now clocking a superb 80m54s.
The rest is history as they say and today Heather Lee holds an amazing eight Australian and five (indeed, two more than Usain Bolt) world records:
All four Australian Records and two world records in the W85 age group
1500m – 11m36.90s (Australian record, 2012)
3km – 23m 24.90s (world record, 2012)
5km – 40m 07.00s (world record 2012)
10km – 80m 54.00s (Australian record 2013)
All Australian Records and all world records in the W90 age group
1500m – 12m 09.10s ( Australian record, world’s fastest time, 2016)
3km – 24m 56.97s (world record, 2017)
5km – 41 04.87s (world record, 2018)
10km – 85m 28s (world record, 2018)
(While the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) does not recognise the 1500m as a world record event in Heather’s age group, her time of 12m 09.10s, set in Sydney in late 2016, is the world’s fastest.)
Heather Lee has become a true elite sports woman, with talent and tenacity to boot, a keen sense of competition and the enthusiasm needed to keep training three to four times each week - hail rain or shine - week in, week out and year after year. Her world records are so competitive they will not be easily challenged. She is a well known, much respected master athlete whose age grade*, more often than not greater than 90%, has surpassed 100% on several occasions.
*Age grading uses tables of "age factors" and "age standards" to put all runners,
regardless of age and sex on a level playing field. In particular, they allow
runners' performances, no matter what their age, to be corrected to what they
would have been achieving in their prime years, and permit valid comparisons to
Such achievements seldom go unrecognised and since those first gold medals in 2011 Heather has won numerous awards: from NSW Masters Athletics, Athletics New South Wales, Hawkesbury City Council and the local Richmond Ex Servicemen’s Club. Of all her awards tough, her favourite by a mile is the 2012 Australian Masters Athletics Walks Award, which was presented to her on the same day she broke the Australian record in the W80 10km for the third time, at the 2013 Australian Masters Track and Field Championships in Canberra.
More recently she has received the following awards:
New South Wales Masters Athletics Most Outstanding Individual Performance 2017
New South Wales Masters Athletics Walker of the Year 2017
Athletics NSW 2017/2018 Walks Award
Hawkesbury City Council Senior Sportsperson of the year 2018
And she was selected as baton bearer in the Queen’s Baton Relay for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
However, it’s not only Heather’s efforts on the circular track that make her a stand out. Like so many elite athletes she sees her sporting success and ability to be a role model as an opportunity to inspire others and support her charity of choice, the NSW Cancer Council. She has been a member of the local Hawkesbury Cancer Support Group for many years, was the 2018 Cancer Council March Charge Ambassador and has taken part in the Hawkesbury Relay for Life every year since its inception in 2004. She is frequently invited to speak to special interest groups about her life and sporting achievements and was one of the 2016 NSW Seniors Festival’s ambassadors.
Relay for Life
This September marks the 15th edition of the Hawkesbury Relay for Life and Heather has participated every single year. In the first few Relays she was part of a team of 16 and helped raise more than $70,000 for the NSW Cancer Council. These days she participates as an individual fundraiser but she has no intention to give it up any time soon.
Remarkably, Heather is one of only a handful people who walk the full 24 hours of the Relay. She is there from the start to the very end, walking all day and throughout the sometimes freezing Richmond night, covering up to 85 kilometres and stopping only for meals and toilet breaks. In last year’s Relay she walked more than 95,000 steps!
The March Charge
Just like the Relay for Life, the Cancer Council’s fundraiser the March Charge involves walking and is therefore a natural fit for Heather. After having signed up for The March Charge in 2017 and reaching her kilometre goal with five days to spare, the Cancer Council NSW asked her to be their March Charge Ambassador for the 2018 instalment and so inspire others. Again, Heather completed her kilometre goal well before the end of the month, accumulating 344 kilometres on March 31st.
Not surprisingly, the NSW Cancer Council featured Heather on the fundraiser pages of their 2017 annual report.
In November 2017 Heather began working as a volunteer at Hawkesbury Uniting Retirement Village in Richmond. Many of the people living in this aged care facility have few or no friends or family in the area and benefit from the work of a team of volunteers. Spending time with residents; reminiscing, having conversations about past and present events can make a huge difference and definitely alleviates some of the social isolation.
Order of Australia Medal
Heather’s sporting and fundraising efforts culminated in a Medal of the Order of Australia, General Division in 2014, awarded for “service to athletics through masters race walking, and to the community.”
So far in my 90 years I have never required hospital or surgical treatment but four days before my departure to the World Masters Games in Auckland New Zealand I had the misfortune to break off the tip of my right elbow. My initial thought was ‘thank goodness, my legs are OK’. Knew that it meant hospital treatment but it never occurred to me to cancel my flight and my Masters Games plans – had travel insurance but was still determined to go. Part of my psyche I guess.
The local hospital was my first port of call where I restricted them to X-rays of my elbow, not my head and shoulders as they suggested. Knew that this was my prerogative. Then a heavy plaster cast was placed on my arm. It was comfortable and without any pain and was eventually driven to the Nepean Hospital where an orthopaedic surgeon was available. The medical staff there had their list of questions, which amused me no end, they didn’t know anything about me, so when asked ‘Do you use a walker, have home care, or meals on wheels!! I told them not to treat me like a 90 year old!! They did get quite a surprise when informed of my way of life and sporting activities.
They decided to keep me without food in case there was an opportunity to operate later that day. Then three cannulas were inserted in my left hand and they started the first of many blood tests. Eventually spoke to the surgeon who would perform the operation and requested only a local anaesthetic if possible, but he did not think this could be done. From then on it was a waiting game, but later learned that the operation was set for the following day and did finally get something to eat, but nothing after midnight.
I actually had a comfortable night in spite of them taking yet another blood test but was up early in the morning race walking through the long corridors practicing whether it was possible to compete wearing a plaster cast or not. Was happy to discover that while dressing might be difficult that the cast would be doable.
Finally the moment came when I was taken to the operating room but first spoke to the anaesthetist and discussed the risks involved.My Mother-in law, like me when 90 years of age had also never been in hospital or had surgery during her life, but did not survive after a general anaesthetic. There were no guarantees he said but my way of life and fitness were to my advantage. So was very happy to wake up in the recovery room, glad to be back in the land of the living and more especially happy because I was only bandaged.
Then came the inevitable infusions of anti-biotics and more blood tests andit seemed to go on forever. It meant a second night in hospital but did sleep well and only woke around 5 a.m. when my arm was coming round and getting uncomfortable. Not knowing quite what pain to expect I buzzed the nurse who gave me two panodol and an endone tablet. Not being a pill popper I have not taken anything since or needed to.
Then I had to get out of there, and that was harder than anticipated, so the day dragged on until about mid afternoon when all the discharge papers were in order allowing me to leave.
My packing had already been done which enabled me to take it easy until the next day when leaving to catch my flight,
After arriving in Auckland I had four days before my first competition and meant to take it easy and relax as much as possible. However, I did feel strange and not quite myself and had absolutely no appetite. Mingling with the 28,000 competitors from overseas was a new experience and my largest Masters Games and it took my mind off my physical problems. So glad to be there and just a small part of it was wonderful.
Unfortunately I felt unwell the night before Anzac Day and had no sleep, so early in themorning took a taxi to the Auckland Hospital and needed to see a doctor.
Of course, it was back to more blood tests and more questions and was kept there for nine hours, finally leaving very late that day and too late for me to compete that evening in my first event. On the Wednesday the 3k walk event was scheduled for 12.20 p.m. so I arrived at the Trust Arena Track and Field Venue early in readiness for the start. When the gun went off I did start well at first but found myself unable to maintain a good pace, finishing in over 27 mins and my slowest time ever. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement and just could not understand why. It was the same in the 5k walk on the Friday, had no energy and finished once again in my slowest time, but still received two gold medals for my efforts but they will never be engraved.
Since arriving home and seeing my own doctor it was explained to me that I was still feeling the effects of the operation plus all the anti-bioticsand was the reason for my poor performance. It was also fortunate that I did not take any of the endone tablets prescribed for me after leaving the hospital as being an opiate meant disqualification had I been drug tested at the Games.
After all the dramas and disappointment there was such a great respect for the older athletes amongst all the younger competitors and I was photographed everywhere I went, bus, train, station, cafe and the track. It was priceless to experience the camaraderie and the warmth emanating from so many different countries from around the world.
My dream of breaking another record will have to wait but this was still the experience of a lifetime and one that will never be forgotten. Sometimes it’s not all about winning but the journey along the way.