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Record-Holder For Oldest Winter Olympian Sets Her Sights On Summer Games

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Anne Abernathy is an Olympian many times over, and now at age 60, she's picking up archery to try and get back in the Games.
Lauren Ober/WAMU
Anne Abernathy is an Olympian many times over, and now at age 60, she's picking up archery to try and get back in the Games.
Anne Abernathy sights down her bow at the Bull Run Shooting Center Archery Range.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Anne Abernathy is navigating a set of stairs at the Bull Run Public Shooting Center in Centreville, Va. With one hand on the railing and the other on a cane, Abernathy slowly picks her way down the steps leading to the subterranean archery range.

This isn't exactly what you expect to witness when you're meeting an Olympic hopeful. But then, this Virginia woman isn't your average athlete.

"I'm 60 years old," she says, proudly. "I'm not a young pup at this."

A career Olympian

There's another detail that might prove even more of an issue than her age, and the fact that she's hobbling around after a recent knee operation — Abernathy is a total beginner at archery. She picked up the sport only 14 months ago. Most elite athletes train for years in their chosen disciplines before ever getting a shot at the Olympics. Not Abernathy.

"I only know how to train for the Olympics. I don't know how to do something recreational," she says.

Abernathy, a sexagenarian archery novice, has her sights set on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. If she makes it, she will likely be the oldest competitor in the games. But it won't be the first time.

Abernathy is a six-time Olympian — a fact she will tell you many times in the course of a conversation. She represented the U.S. Virgin Islands in the sliding sport of luge and wears a gold necklace featuring the Olympic rings as proof. At the time of her first Olympics — the 1988 Calgary games — Abernathy was 34. She went on to compete in Albertville, Lillehammer, Nagano, Salt Lake City and Torino.

"When I first started, I didn't think Olympics. I just thought I really enjoy doing this sport," she says. "But luge takes a toll on the body. Although I really loved the sport, my body had had enough."

Abernathy's not kidding about that. Since taking up luge in the 80s, she has had 19 knee operations and a smattering of other surgeries. She's broken her back and had a number of head injuries. With that in mind, archery seems like a way safer option.

Anne Abernathy trains for the 2016 Summer Olympics at the Bull Run Public Shooting Center in Centreville, Va.

An unlikely athlete

To understand Abernathy's obsession with the Olympics, and with sport in general, you have to know a little something about her upbringing. She was born in Florida to a father in the Air Force and a mother who didn't think it was appropriate for girls to play sports. The family moved around a lot, but ultimately ended up in Northern Virginia, where Abernathy graduated from high school. 

"I loved playing softball, but my mom wouldn't let me. I wasn't allowed to do any sports in school. I could swim. I was allowed to swim and play tennis," she says.

Decades later, Abernathy discovered luge during a trip to Lake Placid. At the 1980 Winter Olympic venue, Abernathy and some friends watched the sliders fly down the track. Soon, a luge coach sidled up to them, asking if anyone wanted to try it. 

"I was there and I turned to the guy next to me and we looked at each other and we said, why not?," she says.

So began Anne Abernathy's 20-year luge career. She never medaled at the Olympics, but she did get to travel the world competing. Over the years, she picked up a nickname: Grandma Luge.

At the Bull Run shooting range in Centreville, Abernathy is working with a fellow Olympian to hone her newfound archery skills. Ruth Rowe competed in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles as a member of the U.S. archery team and the pair make a perfect combo. They bicker and tease like an old married couple. And they have their own way of communicating.

"Ruth will see me across the room and she'll say steer. And everybody goes, What? And what she means is use the same muscles that I use to steer with [in luge]," she says. "So we have our own language that we were able to pick up by combining both of the sports. And it got me to World Cup last year, within my first 12 months."

Rowe, who is 66, seems to understand her athlete's particular set of challenges. She's had to adjust the way Abernathy shoots to accommodate for the fact that the former luger can no longer fully straighten her right arm. But Rowe believes in her.

"She has the discipline of training, she has the experience in high-level competition and she knows how to handle herself mentally," Rowe says.

Olympic obstacles abound

But what might make Abernathy's march toward Rio even harder than it already is is the fact that she's low on cash. Unlike many other Olympic hopefuls who ink sponsorship deals with shoe or car or yogurt companies, Abernathy has to find the money to compete herself. This endeavor is not cheap.

"It's a massive expense and I'm not exactly sure how I'm going to get there. I'm getting there on a shoestring right now," Abernathy says. "I'm hoping that someone will jump on board and help me get there. When I got to my last Olympics in luge I literally got there one T-shirt at a time."

To that end, Abernathy was until recently couchsurfing at a friend's house in Falls Church to cut down on expenses. Then a couple weeks ago, a family in Vienna "adopted" the Olympian, allowing her to stay in their house rent-free while she trains with Ruth Rowe at Bull Run.

It's just one of many sacrifices Abernathy is making to fulfill this dream. She intends to get to Rio, odds be damned.

[Music: "Don't Stop Me Now: Secondo Tempo Allegro" by Emilio Marinelli Trio from Clouds Digger]

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