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On Second Thought

How this 95-year-old gymnast stays young can be a lesson for us all

Johanna Quaas was born in Germany in 1925 and began competing in gymnastics as a 9-year-old.Waltraud Grubitzsch/Waltraud Grubitzsch/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Superb senior gymnast Johanna Quaas never would say it, but if you’re an adult, especially advanced in years, be warned: Don’t dare try one of her routines if you’re home alone.

If you’re a kid, entranced by Quaas’s dazzling dipsy-doodles on the parallel bars, please don’t attempt any of her flips and flops without a qualified adult at your side.

The sprightly, ever-smiling, and bespectacled Quaas is 95 years old and nearly 10 years ago was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest gymnast. Hardly a surprise that no one subsequently has filched that title from the old girl, who was born in Germany in 1925 and began competing in gymnastics as a 9-year-old.


Quaas today is a nonagenarian dynamo, a former team handball champion in East Germany, an inspirational, trim, tour de force on the bars and in the floor exercise. A mother of three, she won the German Seniors gymnastics title for 11 straight years (2000-11), age 75-86.

“You are never too old,” she said in 2015, when the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame honored her at its annual dinner in Oklahoma City, “to learn something new.”

The Internet is full of video clips of Quaas’s routines, all of them defying her age, all of them a marvel, leaving one and all on either side of age 95 to feel like they’re just the sorriest couch potato ever to tumble off the turnip truck. Please pardon the mixed-veg metaphor, but she’s a big proponent of a plant-based diet. She loves her greens.

Quaas’s moves these days are slow, deliberate, form perfect, videos of her sets essentially a “how to” instruction manual. Her hair is white, her face a rich mosaic of story lines, and her sense of self that of an elderly woman who proudly tells anyone, “My heart is young.”


Got that right. She has the ticker of a 20-something.

Quaas’s secret formula: her green diet, moderation (eat till full, then stop), and plenty of exercise (gymnastics three or four days a week, with an occasional sauna and a dip in the pool). Oh, and all of it covered by a sunny disposition.

No real magic there, right? Hardly revolutionary TB12 live-long-and-prosper stuff or that sensational gizmo that sells for $59.95 on QVC, promising those ever-elusive six-pack abs. Ever notice how those gizmos always fit neatly under the bed, so we can tuck ‘em away and act like we never saw them?

“I mean, look at her, doing the parallel bars, and her tumbling,” said Dr. Kristen Gunning, an internist, recently watching one of the Quaas videos. “She’s amazing.”

Gunning is a member of the Bulfinch Medical Group located on the Massachusetts General Hospital campus, and she specializes, in part, in geriatric patients, albeit not those who routinely wake up each day and spring cartwheels across the kitchen floor.

A gymnast in her childhood, what Gunning tells her elderly patients, and those middle-age and younger, fits Quaas’s story: Stay active both of body and mind, maintain proper diet and weight, and especially try not to be deterred today by thinking that you’ll start doing all the right health and fitness things tomorrow.

“Like, say, patients who are carrying 30 extra pounds,” noted Gunning. “They’re always planning, ‘Well, once I get through tax season, then I’ll be able to exercise.’ Or, ‘Once I get through this, I’ll be able to do that … once my kids are older, and I’m not running around like crazy, I can get to that.’ ”


It’s especially the extra weight, Gunning reminds them, that adds years, packs on the health risks.

“It ages you a lot,” she said, ticking off the added risk of cancer, high-blood-pressure, diabetes, etc. “The inactivity ages you.”

Too often, noted Gunning, we are the greatest obstacles standing in way to our better selves, especially when it comes to trying smarter diets, new health regimens.

“A lot of patients stay in their own way, truthfully,” she said. ‘If I think of my own patients in their 90s … some often look younger than my patients in their 60s. Having taken care of patients [for some 25] years, there seems to be a split, somewhere in your late 60s/early 70s, where one group of individuals is physiologically 20 years older than the other group of individuals.”

Some of that, noted Gunning, is purely random, such as older patients that develop a devastating illness unrelated to their fitness level, diet or good health practices.

“But so often it’s lifestyle,” she said. “It’s diet. It’s exercise. It’s keeping yourself mentally sharp, keeping yourself physically in shape, just socially keeping up — such as people who can make friends throughout their lives. No question, people who’ve lived in moderation have an advantage.”

Gunning noted two of her current vital 90-somethings, one a woman who only until recently regularly conducted tours at the Museum of Fine Arts, another a 91-year-old Korean War veteran whose passion is to help those steering through recovery at Alcoholics Anonymous.


“He’s in the [Holyoke] Soldiers’ Home now, and COVID-negative, thankfully,” she said. “Once they give him an ounce of freedom, the very first thing he’s going to do is go back to sponsoring people at AA meetings.”

Amid the ongoing pandemic, said Gunning, COVID-19 has claimed but one of her patients. A significant number of elderly in her care, though, have succumbed to the isolation and associated inactivity the pandemic has forced on so many of us of all ages.

“I’ve lost so many seniors,” said a somber Gunning. “It’s the social isolation. It’s the lack of activity. They’re losing ground in their physical stamina. Just not being able to walk the same distances. They’re shriveling up and it’s truly awful.”

Other than a brief hiatus around the World War II years, Quaas has been a gymnast for the better part of three-quarters of a century. The passion has shaped her life, helped her stay healthy, won her a bunch of rewards. It is a passion that radiates from her every move.

Clint Eastwood, the 90-year-old filmmaker, said a couple of years ago that his secret to remaining vital was his refusal “to let the old man in.”

Dirty Harry and the elegant, impish Quaas, though from separate worlds, have one thing in common: the art of sticking a landing.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.