“Now is the time to show your mettle.”
These are the words that will stay with 2019 New South Wales Senior Australian of the Year Heather Lee forever. They have been the force behind every step of every race, echoing in her ears during every incredible achievement and in every quiet moment over the last 25 years. After her beloved husband passed from cancer in 1996, his poignant words were the catalyst for what Heather describes as an “incredible and joyful journey”.
‘Walking was grief therapy in the beginning. When my husband died, I was compelled to walk. The faster I walked, the better I felt,’ Heather said.
‘After moving closer to family, I joined the local walking group. They walked with purpose – it was a privilege to be part of such a dedicated group of people. In 2001, we tackled our first City to Surf. It took us 2 hours and 44 minutes to walk 14 kms. I was so thrilled by the atmosphere and adrenaline rush that I wanted to compete again on my own, which I did!’
This was the beginning of an unwavering passion for racing, from fun runs to walking over 24 hours for cancer research as part of Relay for Life. Heather never expected to have found her calling later in her life.
‘When I was 84, my physiotherapist suggested I should take part in the Australian Masters Games. Little did I realise it would be such a huge turning point for me. I had never race walked before but came home from Adelaide with 4 gold medals,’ Heather said.
‘I’m totally amazed that I became, and am now regarded as, an athlete. When I was 85, I ran out of competitors in my age group to compete against. I looked at the Australian and world records and realised they were well within my capabilities. What motivation to continue!’
Heather has since broken 8 Australian and 5 world records, and in 2014 was awarded the Order of the Medal of Australia for her service to athletics through Masters’ race walking and to the community. In her age group, she holds all Australian and world records for race walking and is ranked first in the world. This year, she was awarded the 2023 Australian Masters Athletics Athlete of the Year in the middle distance category.
She says that one of the greatest honours she has experienced was being named the New South Wales Senior Australian of the Year in 2019.
‘What a great privilege to be given this platform and the opportunity to impart my message of the importance of active living and a healthy lifestyle. I’ve been blessed! Not in my wildest dreams could I have expected this,’ Heather said.
Now approaching her 97th birthday, Heather attributes her longevity to a healthy lifestyle nurtured from a young age.
‘It really became a reality when I was approaching my 40th birthday. My husband and I were very fit people and wanted to keep our quality of life as we grew older. We decided to prioritise a healthy lifestyle with good diet and exercise as the norm,’ Heather said.
‘It was a blessing to do it with each other. We spent many happy and healthy years together.’
With a commitment to ageing well, Heather is thankful that she has been able to keep her independence and all it encompasses – something many older people fear. Her advice for younger people is to ‘plan for good health every day’.
‘How you choose to age is up to you! I applaud people who engage themselves in sport and active living during their early years, but you need to sustain that fitness all your life,’ Heather said.
‘My favourite motto is ‘use it or lose it’! There are no guarantees in life. My life has changed over the years, and I’ve had to change with it.’
One of the best parts of ageing, according to Heather, is that she can still learn something new each day and continue to fulfil the dreams and wishes of her youth. Her message for older people in Australia is to never define themselves or others by age, and to live their lives to the fullest by:
- keeping active
- having a positive attitude
- finding or maintaining your purpose in life
- not vegetating
- keeping up with technology in this fast-changing world
- socialising with family and friends
- finding a hobby you enjoy or something to challenge yourself
- never defining yourself or others by age.
‘Getting older is an achievement. Make wellness your goal and never take independence for granted,’ Heather said.
Reflecting on everything she has achieved, Heather hopes her legacy will inspire people to follow in her footsteps. The trailblazer looks forward to continuing to make history as the only 96-year-old in the world competing in race walking – no small feat!
‘I’ve forged quite a path for myself – I can’t stop now! I can’t predict the future, but I would like to leave this world knowing I have showed my mettle," Heather said.
‘I know today that I am who I was born to be.’
Heather is one of many older people in Australia achieving incredible things as they age. She is sharing her story with us as part of our sponsorship of the Senior Australian of the Year category of the Australian of the Year Awards.
For more inspiring stories, hear from past and present Senior Australian of the Year winners.
We are committed to ensuring every Australian has the opportunity to live well, stay healthy and maintain their connection to community as they age. To learn more about how we are supporting Australians to age well, visit our positive ageing page.