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'No pain, no problems': 41-year-old gymnast proves age is just a number

TODAY logo TODAY 8/10/2016 A. Pawlowski

Oksana Chusovitina © DYLAN MARTINEZ Oksana Chusovitina Like all of her fellow Olympic female gymnasts competing in Rio, Oksana Chusovitina is tiny, impossibly agile and explosively fast.

What makes people do a double-take is her age.

Watch: Oksana Chusovitina defying the odds

At 41, Chusovitina is the oldest Olympic female gymnast in history, competing in her seventh Summer Games. The 5-foot tall, 94-pound dynamo is representing Uzbekistan and will be vying for a medal in the vault final this Sunday.

She's not the only Olympian getting attention for her age in Rio. At 31, Michael Phelps is oldest swimmer to win an individual gold medal in Olympic history after his triumph on Tuesday night. At 35, Anthony Ervin is the second-oldest U.S. Olympic men's swimmer since 1904.

But gymnastics is especially demanding on bodies, with many athletes reaching their peak performance in their teens and early 20s, and retiring soon after. Injuries abound as the petite competitors flip, twist and fly through the air. It's a sport where 30 seems old and 40 downright ancient.

So Chusovitina's longevity and ability to stay in top form is amazing. Age really is just a number, she said.

Oksana Chusovitina © Rebecca Blackwell Oksana Chusovitina

"On the podium, everyone is the same whether you are 40 or 16. You have to go out and do your routine and your jumps," Chusovitina told The Associated Press.

"But it's a pity there are no points for age."

She has "no pain, no problems" while she trains, Chusovitina told the agency, adding she doesn't know how she stays fit and may have her parents' good genes to thank.

It's still a young person's game and as athletes age, they need to adjust their training, but the right genetics paired with the right coaches can result in great performances, said Nicole Detling, assistant professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Utah.

"It's absolutely true that we lose flexibility and agility with age," Detling told TODAY. "However, there are some anomalies who can maintain through 'older' ages."

Born on Apr. 19, 1975, Chusovitina first competed in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona — five years before current gymnastics star Simone Biles was born — where she won a team gold medal for the Unified Team made up of former Soviet republics.

She's been back ever since, coming out of retirement for Rio. Chusovitina is competing against women her 16-year-old son's age, which could let her tap her superior experience or make things more daunting. How does a huge age difference affect an athlete's mindset?

"If she views it as a hindrance, it is. If she uses it as an advantage, it is," Detling said. "Hopefully she worked with a mental skills coach to learn to see it as an advantage."

Chusovitina might take advice from U.S. swimmer Dara Torres, who won an Olympic medal in 2008 at the age of 41.

"I had to dig deep inside of myself, rethink how to train my body, and ask new questions about what makes a person stronger and more flexible — in body and in mind. In other words, I had to understand how not to let my age get in my way," Torres wrote.

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