In the driving rain, 95-year-old Heather Lee took to the track last weekend to set a world record in her age group for walking over 1500m, and she’s ready to make three more world records in the coming weeks – but hopefully in better weather!
The highly successful athlete from Richmond, New South Wales, has been competing in race walking for 11 years and has “gone viral” this week over her world record-breaking finish line video.
“I’ve never put tickets on myself, I never thought I’d amount to anything really but suddenly I find I’m in the spotlight,” Ms Lee said.
“It’s a bit overwhelming but it’s very enjoyable to think that people appreciate what I do.”
On this coming Saturday, Ms Lee will follow up on her 13 minute and 45 second 1500m record by attempting to break the 400m world record in under three minutes and 21 seconds, then set a new 3km world record for her age group immediately after.
On the following Saturday, she will attempt to break the 800m record of nine minutes and 30 seconds, which she said would be a “piece of cake”.
Last November, Ms Lee even walked 100km in a week to raise money for a charity supporting premature babies and their families.
Ms Lee has been awarded the 2019 NSW Senior of the Year and an Order of Australia Medal, met the former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and travelled to every State in Australia to compete in the National Masters Games.
Born on the Isle of White in England in 1926, Ms Lee said she was “always a walker”.
“I always seemed to be the one walking the dogs and years ago people didn’t have cars as much as they do today, so I did walk a lot more in my younger years.
“But it wasn’t until after my husband died that I took up the sport.
“I had a compulsion to walk when he died, I think it was therapy and the faster I walked the better I felt.”
After joining a local walking group, Ms Lee travelled with the group to do walks across Australia and in 2000, five of her walking companions decided to enter the City2Surf in Sydney.
“I was so smitten by the atmosphere and the adrenaline rush of the City2Surf that I decided to do it on my own the following year and I did it in two hours and three minutes,” said Ms Lee.
“I did it just about every year after that, and I followed it with the Ridge Run, the 12km Challenge Walk at Mount Annan, Mother’s Day Classic – you name it, anything that was going I was doing and I was winning in my age group just about every time.
“I was 84, running out of contestants and I was still doing extremely well, I sort of got to the point where I wondered just how good I was.”
In 2011, Ms Lee’s physiotherapist encouraged her to enter the National Masters Games and she became hooked on race walking after a crash course in the technique.
“I was very fortunate because I arrived in Adelaide and on the first day of the first event I turned up in long trousers, and I wasn’t the only one, and it’s the only time I’ve ever had a lesson in race walking,” said Ms Lee.
“[The official] said, ‘Now ladies, you understand the rules of race walking’, and he gave us a quick example and he said, ‘ladies, next time you come you have to be in shorts, you have to show your knees for the judges around the track to look at your technique’.”
Practicing in the hotel hallway, Ms Lee refined her technique and competed in four events against younger women, as there was no one else entered in her age group.
When she arrived home, a local magazine interested in her event times informed her she had broken several records already.
“When I was 85, I registered with NSW Masters Athletics and in 2012 I think I just about broke every Australian record and by the end of the year I broke two world records.”
General Manager, Marketing & Communications at Athletics NSW, James Constantine, said not only was Ms Lee an inspiration but she also brought welcome attention to her sport.
“It was extraordinary seeing first-hand Heather in action on the weekend, inspiring every athlete, spectator and official at the venue,” Mr Constantine said.
“We thank Heather and the NSW Masters Athletics Association (Ms Lee’s club) for bringing so much attention to our wonderful sport, and we can’t wait to see her take the start line at the next event she competes at.”