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Guelph triathlete going strong at 85

Charlie Barnes finished second in his age group at the 2022 World Triathlon Sprint & Relay Championships in Montreal

Age seems to be just a number for Guelph's Charlie Barnes.

Still, at the age of 85, he's going out and collecting hardware in triathlons around the world. 

He landed a silver in the 85-89 age group in the sprint race at the 2022 World Triathlon Sprint & Relay Championships in Montreal last month.

Barnes completed a 750 metre swim, 20 kilometre bike ride and five kilometre run in two hours, 31 minutes and 56 seconds.

"It's absolutely incredible, the most amazing feeling you can imagine," he told GuelphToday about hitting the podium. "You just feel so elated about it."

He estimates there were about 3,000 athletes competing overall, including 75 in his wave, spanning multiple age groups.

Five men, including himself, were part of his age group, but two were disqualified after event organizers say they didn't complete the bike course. 

However, Barnes was still in podium position after the swimming portion of the event and kept going strong to the finish, improving on the bronze medal he collected in the 80 to 84 age group race in 2017, when the event was held in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

The gap in competitions is by design for Barnes, noting the slow down in performance is dramatic in the older age groups.

"If you're 35 to 39 age group, the best athlete wins that, not the youngest," he said. "But when you get to be in my age group, age is a huge factor. One or two years, and you've lost an awful lot of speed.

"That's why I've been going in these races almost every five years, so that I can be the youngest of my five-year increment age group."

Barnes has always been an athlete, but didn't really start competing in triathlons until he was around 60 years of age at Guelph Lake.

"I was always a pretty good runner and cyclist, the swimming was the toughest," he said. "But when you start winning, winning your age group or placing in your age group, that's a huge incentive."

The winning kept following him, so Barnes kept pressing on in the local races.

He then went on the world stage for the first time in 2011, placing fifth in the 70 to 74 age group at the World Championship event in Beijing. 

He followed it up two years later with a fifth place finish in London, this time in the 75 to 79 age group. Barnes completed those two races in under two hours.

The support from family and friends has been evident, from the 22 people supporting him in Montreal just over a week ago — including his twin sister Ann — to his longtime trainer Sue Nash.

Barnes referred to Nash as "like a daughter" to him, and raved about the work she's done to get him ready.

The feeling is mutual the other way.

"He's such a wonderful person," Nash said. "And (winning silver in Montreal) is a huge accomplishment."

But preparing an 85 year old for an athletic challenge such as a triathlon is not an easy task.

"There's just no information out there on training people who are 85 and doing a triathlon," she said. "So it was really a mind and body coaching experience."

Going to Montreal, Nash said Barnes was in a whole other head space after getting the bronze in Holland in 2017. It was like there was an expectation to get to the podium again.

It was a mental game Barnes said she had to coach him through ahead of time, by being in the moment and letting go of "all the other head space things that were going on."

She said Barnes knows how to train and how to be successful. But with age, come hurdles, such as the arthritis in Barnes' right hip.

Nash got him into the routine of doing stretching and mobilizing the hip after a training session, doing the work required so the pain is gone the next day.

"He'll often tell you 'Suzie got rid of my arthritis,' and I'm like 'Charlie, no I didn't,' it's still there, trust me," she said with a laugh. "But I trained him to know that if he does his training, he needs the follow up step."

"By the time I was racing, and today, I can't feel it at all," Barnes added.

The 85-year-old considers himself lucky and privileged, from growing up in Toronto after World War 2, getting a good education, having a great family and having excellent health.

"I just feel extremely privileged and fortunate I've been able to carry on and keep doing this," he said.

The question remains though, how much longer he can keep going with racing.

He loved the experience in Montreal, but it was "the toughest race I think I've ever done."

"I feel like a lawn tractor on the highway," Barnes added. "Everybody's passing me cause they're all younger."

Asking him now, Barnes feels Montreal was his last.

But he's not exactly leaving the door closed on this chapter.

"Right now, I'm out," he said. "But I'm beginning to think 'maybe you should keep going Charlie.' Who knows. 

"Maybe you can actually get the elusive gold one day."

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Mark Pare

About the Author: Mark Pare

Mark is a graduate of Canadore College in North Bay whose career has taken him through a number of spots across Ontario. He spent nearly a decade in the radio news industry in North Bay, Timmins and Waterloo Region
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