TAIPEI: She sprints down the track in a blur of orange, white and black, effortlessly keeping pace with the young man beside her, arms pumping like pistons and landing on the balls of her feet in textbook form.
Pan Shiu-Yu runs the 100 metres in a respectable 15 seconds, just two seconds more than her personal best when she was 13.
That was seven decades ago.
Now 81 – but looking like 60 and moving better than many 40-year-olds – she has barely slowed down.
She climbs mountains, cycles, plays tennis, and is the Taiwanese record holder for 11 athletic events, including the long jump, triple jump and 100m for the 60, 70 and 80 age groups.
“Everyone is able to do simple things. You have to do the things that other people cannot. Only then will you set records,” she said.
The Channel NewsAsia series Super Octogenarians found out just what that entails. (Watch the episode here).
Every day, she's up by 4.30am, readying herself for a day of exercise and work at a senior citizens’ centre, where she plans activities for its members.
Instead of taking the bus or train, she cycles, rather effortlessly and upslope at times, to the tennis court where she meets her friends at about 6am.
There, she jogs 7km, rain or shine, and then squeezes in an hour of tennis before heading to work.
“I like challenges because the more difficult it is, the more I want to forge ahead,” she said in all seriousness.
‘I NEEDED TO BE TOUGH’
Her house is a testament to her lifestyle: About a dozen worn tennis rackets are displayed on her wall, along with an assortment of medals, sports shoes and hiking boots that overfill her shoe cabinet.
She attributes her competitive nature to the responsibilities she was forced to take on when growing up. The eldest of four children, Mdm Pan stepped into her father’s shoes after he died when she was 12.
She became the “strict sister” who looked after and disciplined her younger siblings. "I had to be a good role model to them. I needed to be tough.
"Till this day, they’re still very afraid of me, and they listen to whatever I say,” she grinned.
Youngest sister Pan Shiu-jin recalled that in her 20s, when their mother too died, their big sister also “became like a mother to us, always including us when there’s good food”.
She said her big sister had always had a stubborn streak. “I suppose her stubbornness pushes her continuously. That’s why she has won so many medals."
SPOTTED BY A SCOUT
That love of athletics initially came about by chance. A schoolteacher noticed her potential during a Scout lesson when they went barefoot.
“The Scout teacher saw my feet, and he said, ‘Hey, your feet are very unique – they have high arches. You must be a fast runner,’” Mdm Pan recalled.
When she replied that she had never tried running as a sport, he recommended her to a sports teacher. “So I started to train in track, and I fell in love with the sport. I got very tanned."
But when she got married at 22, her sporting passion had to take a back seat. She had children, became a housewife and could not find the time to exercise.
“I had to focus fully on my family, I had in-laws; I had to fulfil family commitments,” she said.
Then when she reached her late 50s, she started to experience pain in both knees. Her doctor suggested knee replacement surgery, as her ligaments were worn out from friction.
She refused - as the surgery was no guarantee that her knee problems would not return, or worse, that she could do sports again.
I decided that … I was going to exercise on my own. I told the doctor I wanted to try. The doctor was really upset at the time.
With her heart set on training her muscles so that she would not need surgery, she “rediscovered" her athletic spirit. She pushed on despite the pain and the questions from family and friends about her decision.
“In the end, I won. My kneecaps healed naturally,” she said. “At my age, I can run and jump. Very few people can do this.”
WATCH: Keeping up with super granny (3:39)
FROM LEARNING TENNIS …
Some of her friends find her to be a source of motivation, given her fitness level at her age.
“Because we’re younger than Sister Pan, she’s always encouraging us not to give up and to keep pushing on, regardless of the obstacles,” said tennis mate Jhang Bi-E. “We have to learn from her example.”
Mdm Pan is among the top female tennis players in her group, and it shows. On court, she moves around with agility and ease. She also hits a mean single-handed backhand.
When she first picked up the game – at the age of 70 – she wanted to join a tennis team, but the coach told her to practise against a wall and come back after she had improved.
The problem was the practice area was littered with holes, and just as she got started, she broke a leg in a fall. “I started using a cane again and only got better half a year later,” she said.
That did not stop her from giving the sport another go. Today, she insists on playing from the baseline – which demands more running, but she is not one to settle for the line of least resistance.
“If the net player does not hit the ball, you have to run to save it,” she said. “Tennis is a very good form of exercise because you need to sprint.”
… TO CLIMBING MOUNTAINS
Not content with playing tennis, she then picked up mountaineering when she was about 75. “The joy of climbing mountains is that you need patience,” she said.
“You’d definitely be tired, but you have to use your breathing techniques and not keep panting.”
She has climbed four mountains, including Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount Yushan, Taiwan’s highest peak. Even those who are younger than her struggle to keep up at times.
“People would all look at how old I am and tell me not to come along,” she said.
(They questioned) how they were going to climb with an old granny. Actually, the people who laughed at me were all behind me.
Her own son dare not go hiking with her, not since they went to Yangmingshan National Park when she was a widow in her 60s and he was in his 30s. Just 20 minutes into the trek, he was lagging behind.
“I turned around and saw that he was pale. He had to sit down and rest,” she recounted. “He was vomiting. He complained that I was running. I said that I wasn’t – I was just walking.”
She told him she walked fast out of habit, even when hiking. He gave up and walked back to the car, while she continued her hike.
Photographer Pan Yu Wen also found himself having to catch up with her in a few photo sessions for a special series embodying the “Never Too Old” spirit.
One morning after a photo shoot on the track, the playful senior challenged him to a 100m sprint, her pet event. He agreed.
The race started with him surging ahead, but only just. “I actually couldn’t get rid of her. I kept hearing her footsteps on my left,” he said.
With her quicker strides and a look of intense concentration, she soon caught up with Mr Pan, who was struggling to maintain his pace. And in a split second, she pulled away from her younger opponent at the finishing line.
“I didn’t expect her to run this fast. I lost to a senior who’s twice my age. I’m so embarrassed,” he laughed.
A grinning Mdm Pan let him in on a secret: “When I’m running, it’s with one breath. There’s no capacity to think of much, but it’s always ‘I want first place’.”
She added: “The final surge when you arrive at the finishing line – that feeling is incredible.”
Mr Pan, inspired by his subject’s never say die spirit, felt that the word “old” was a misnomer for her. "I think if you’re young at heart, you’d also remain young physically."
During one of the photo shoots, he asked her to jump repeatedly so that he could get the perfect shot. She obliged without complaint, though later she said with a chuckle: “Actually, I’m already so old, to jump so many times, I almost couldn’t take it."
The apologetic photographer said he “actually forgot” her age.
Indeed taking it easy is not an option for Mdm Pan, despite advice to the contrary.
Some people would laugh at me: ‘You’re very stupid. Why don’t you take a break?’ I just reply that I don’t rest.
Her message to the elderly? “The older you are, the more you need to get out.” Not everyone must be like her – sprinting and winning medals – “but go out and get some sun”.
“For me, my life has just begun at 80,” she added.
“I’ll keep going and run till I can’t run any more. Even though I’m 81 years old now, I’d like to see myself on the news one day as someone who’s still running in her 90s. I hope there’ll be such a day.”