A couple of years ago Erwin Jaskulski—economist, linguist, I philosopher and classical-music devotee—having kept reasonably active after retiring as comptroller of Honolulu's Channel 2, finally gave in to nudging by athletic friends and consented to run his first race since his early 20s. He entered the 100-meter dash in his age group at the 1997 Aloha State Games. "And it was veni, vidi, vici" he says, still jubilant. "I came, I saw, I won!"
And caused a small sensation. Jaskulski's time of 25.73 seconds seemed to obliterate me world record for his age group. Which age group, you might ask? Erwin Jaskulski was 94.
But the World Association of Veteran Athletes refused to accept the record, sneering that the timing system, wind gauges and officials weren't certified. So Duncan MacDonald, an official of USA Track and Field Hawaii (also a 1976 Olympian and the breaker of Steve Prefontaine's 5,000-meter U.S. record), and the Hawaii Masters Track Club gradually arranged for the training of officials and the required equipment to enable Jaskulski to try again.
"Meanwhile, I licked blood," says Jaskulski, using an expression from his Austrian origins, "meaning I acquired a real taste for track. I worked to have the sprinter's style and the endurance to go top speed for the whole 100."
So in May, Jaskulski, now 96, bent into the blocks beside Hawaii's top open sprinters in a preliminary 100-meter heat at the Punahou Relays. At the gun, his young competitors shot to the finish in 11 seconds or so, then turned to see his white-clad, white-haired, 5'7", 130-pound figure, 50 meters back, coming on. His cadence was mechanical, his face a mask of dogged determination. He drove across the line, openmouthed, in 24.01 seconds. The wind (1.2 meters per second) and all else were legal. Jaskulski had just ripped more than 14 seconds from the 95-99 age-group record of 38.82, set in 1997 by Kazuhiko Tsutsumi of Japan.
Now, that caused a real sensation. Letterman called. Leno called. Everyone asked the same thing. "How, how did I do it?" echoes Jaskulski. "I did it hiking, hiking, hiking! Well, certain other principles were involved."
Jaskulski is so formidable of mind that even remarking on his undimmed wit feels vaguely patronizing, like complimenting Martina Navratilova on her English. Just as impressive is his jaunty positivism. To reach such vigorous old age, he seems to prove, one's spirit must be bathed in sweetness and sparkle.
Jaskulski was born on Sept. 24, 1902, in the city of Czernowitz, Austria- Hungary (now Chervonohrad, Ukraine). Too young to be swept into the carnage of the Great War, Jaskulski nevertheless bore its mark. " Austria was blockaded; we had little to eat," he says. "At 18, I weighed 100 pounds. So I decided something had to be done."
He began a lifelong regimen of calisthenics, and he still does sets of eight pull-ups, 30 squats and 50 sit-ups every other day. He rock climbed, Whitewater kayaked, swam, dived, ice-skated and did judo. He ran track races of up to 800 meters in his 20s, then embraced the two great loves of his sporting life: skiing and hiking in the Austrian and Swiss Alps.
"The main reason I'm strong?" he explains. "Thirty-five years in Austria skiing by climbing six hard hours up for every 20 minutes of bliss gliding down. That trained my heart and lungs and stamina. The other side of the equation: I avoided all things not good for me and ate sparingly and slowly."