I thought I would come to Australia and learn to surf. Instead, I learned to walk.
More precisely, I lumbered, jogged, waddled and generally humiliated my way around a track as I tried — and failed — to keep up with the world’s most exceptional race walker.
That walker, Heather Lee, is 92 years old. She holds five world records and eight Australian ones for racewalking. She is the New South Wales Senior Australian of the Year. And she has big plans for 2019 — namely, breaking her own best times — so she does not kid around when it comes to working out.
Ms. Lee trains at least three days a week. Wednesdays are reserved for interval training with her coach, Liz de Vries. “I never know what horrors she has in store for me,” Ms. Lee said. “But I’m turning back the clock as far as speed’s concerned.”
On a typical day, Ms. Lee walks at least 10,000 steps — a benefit, she said, of giving up driving. In 2018, she walked 3,057,374 steps, according to her fitness watch.
The athlete was already stretching with Ms. de Vries, a fit mother of three, when I met them at a park in Richmond, an hour outside Sydney, at 7:30 a.m. “I’m 55,” Ms. de Vries told me. “And I’m one of the few people in Richmond who can keep up with Heather.”
Many older people I know are focused on the past. When they talk about the future, they are, quite understandably, preoccupied with the hassles and obstacles of their increasing age. Ms. Lee is different. When she looks ahead, it is with optimism and determination. She credits that to her sport. “I’m always looking to compete again,” she said.
Race walking is hard. Trying to do it while maintaining a conversation is much harder. Fortunately Ms. Lee was less winded than me.
Before we had even made it around the first loop, she had told me about some of her favorite walks in the country (the Warrumbungle and Bungle Bungle ranges), her most recent records (she completed 10 kilometers in 84 minutes 21 seconds), World War II (“The day previous to Normandy I knew something was going on. The atmosphere was electric.”) and the queen.
Ms. Lee was born on the Isle of Wight, off southern England, in 1926, the same year as Elizabeth II. “The queen’s like me a bit: She’s learned to change with the times,” she said. “I’ve gone from being a snobbish Pommy to an Australian.”
Ms. Lee, the younger of two sisters, played hockey and tennis, rode horses, swam and biked. She wasn’t particularly academic. “My schooling was a bit interrupted by air raids and things like that,” she said.
She married her first husband, whom she doesn’t like to talk about, on the Isle of Wight and had a daughter. They separated in the early 1960s, when Ms. Lee was 35. She and her daughter moved to Australia a few years later. “I wanted to start a new life for myself,” she said.
What about her career? “I’ve never been anything really special. In my latter years I worked at the post office, which I loved, by the way.”
What was special was her second marriage.
Two years after arriving on the continent, she married an Australian named Leonard Lee, and by the early 1980s they’d moved to Queensland, which Ms. Lee remembers as “wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, a perfect life.” They lived by the sea and had “two or three mango trees and about 23 pawpaw trees of our own.” The couple would barter their fruit for fresh fish caught by their friends. For fun, they played their electric organs.
“We were two halves of a whole,” Ms. Lee said of their marriage more than once during the morning.
Mr. Lee died of lung cancer in 1996, and as his wife tells it, his final words to her changed the course of her life: “Now is the time to show your mettle,” he said.
“I wanted to live up to what he wanted me to be,” Ms. Lee said. “It’s been my creed for all these years.”
She says she had always been focused on wellness and fitness — as far back as the 1970s the Lees did cleanses, brewed their own kombucha and put lecithin on their cereal. But after her husband died, Ms. Lee said, “I had a compulsion to walk. The faster I walked, the better I felt.”
Her athletic career began in earnest a few weeks before she turned 85. In 2011, on the advice of her physiotherapist, she competed in the Australian Masters Games and ended up winning four gold medals.
“I was thrilled to bits with the times that I’d done and I found myself comparing myself to my competitors who were younger than me,” she said. “When I came home, a local magazine writer contacted me and asked me how I went. And I gave him my times for the four different events. He said I was within world record times. And I sort of thought, ‘Wow, this is something.’”
From there, she was off.
Ms. Lee now holds the world records for the 3K, the 5K and the 10K for her age group (90 to 94). The competition is not exactly fierce. There is a 92-year-old Romanian named Elena Pagu. And that’s about it.
But Heather Lee sets out every day to beat Heather Lee. “I have become very competitive with myself,” she said. “All there’s left now is for me to break my own world records.”
By 8:30 a.m., according to Ms. Lee’s Fitbit watch, we had walked 9,206 steps in temperatures nearing 100 degrees. She was ready for a flat white. I was ready for air-conditioning.
In a nearby cafe we spoke about what she sees as her life’s purpose: conveying to younger people the importance of living right — a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. Oh, and stairs: “One of my mottos is take the stairs, not the lift. Always.”
“I’d like to be a role model for women in their middle years who are putting on a few pounds or thinking of slowing down,” she told me. Age, she argued, “is no barrier to anything, really.”
Perhaps, I thought, the fact that she began race walking so late in life was a gift: Her future triumphs promise to outpace her past accomplishments.
I asked Ms. Lee how she felt about the beginning of 2019.
“This year’s a big one because — is it going to be better than last year? Twenty-eighteen was an amazing year for me.”
I laughed, thinking of the people I know, myself included, who are dreading what this year could bring. Yet here was a 92-year-old widow who introduced me to her friends by showing me a drawer of memorial booklets from their funerals. And she is full of nothing but good cheer.
“If you push me to the limit and I drop,” she said she tells her trainer, “do not resuscitate me.” Would she, I asked, like to die while walking?
She didn’t skip a beat. “Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
Bari Weiss is a staff editor and writer for the Opinion section.