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Meet the daredevil pensioners defying their age

From death-defying mountain climbs and fearless flights over the mountains to ice swims and rock climbing up dangerous ridges, meet the tenacious trio who are proving that age is just a number.

All aged in their 70s and 80s, the plucky pensioners hope to banish society’s subconscious stigma that you’re too old to do certain things in life.

By sharing their stories, they hope to show others that it’s never too late.

Sandra Lea – wild swimmer

A broken back, collapsed vertebrae and a knee replacement hasn’t stopped Sandra Lea from plunging into the bracing waters of Loch Ness.

In fact to celebrate her 80th birthday, Sandra, from Inverness, marked the milestone by completing the challenging open-water Kessock Ferry swim.

Taking the plunge: Nothing holds Sandra Lea back from her swimming, as pictured in Loch Ness.

“In the old days that was the big event in Inverness,” said Sandra.

“All the town turned out to watch the swimmers swim the ferry and back again, it was fantastic.

“I first swam the ferry when I was eight, and to celebrate turning 80 I swam the ferry and back with some friends, it was amazing.

“We didn’t get the tide right so it took a bit longer but it was good fun.

Proving that you’re never too old to start something new, Sandra was 63 when she joined Inverness Amateur Swimming Club.

It was a life-changing moment as Sandra went on to win medals for Great Britain at masters competitions across the world.

Refreshing dip: Sandra enjoys wild swimming all year round.

And at the age of 81, Sandra has no plans to slow down, swimming in open water without a wetsuit all year round with plans to take on more competitions.

“I always feel a lot better by the time I come out swimming, it’s so relaxing,” said Sandra.

“I broke my back two years ago at the World Masters Championships in South Korea, and then last year two of my vertebrae collapsed.

“So at the moment I’m having trouble swimming anything apart from back crawl.

“But with back crawl I find I can relax and just look at the sky and enjoy my surroundings.”

Stroke of success: Sandra was a champion backstroke swimmer at school.

It was in the chilly waters of Invergordon where Sandra learned to swim.

“My mum taught me to swim in the sea as soon as I could walk,” said Sandra.

“My mum used to knit my first swim suits so I went in with a swim suit and came out with a knee suit.

“Back in those days, I used to swim at the Longman and at the harbour in Shore Street.

“It was dirty and oily, and when I think of it now I wouldn’t go near it.”

Cold-water therapy: Sandra says she always feels better after a swim in the loch.

Sandra’s talent for swimming became apparent during her school days when she was crowned Scottish champion in front and back crawl.

Despite her success, Sandra drifted away from swimming when she moved out to Australia and latterly New Zealand, where she met her late husband Sydney and went on to have twin daughters Wendy and Jenny.

After returning home to Inverness, it was at the age of 63 when Sandra decided to get back into the water, encouraged by the late swimming coach Alec Sutherland and his sister Nancy.

Deep end: Breaking her back wasn’t even enough to stop Sandra from swimming.

Since then Sandra hasn’t looked back, winning medals for Great Britain at masters swimming competitions across the world including Russia, Australia, America, Canada and Italy.

She has also competed in ice swimming competitions.

“Ice swimming is good fun; you’re so hyped up that you don’t notice how cold it is,” said Sandra.

“I went over to Russia for an ice swim and it was really funny as we walked across this river because it was frozen and we asked someone if they knew where the swimming pool was for the ice swimming.

“They laughed and said yes, you’re standing on it.

“They come out with these great big saws and cut this big hole out the ice for a swimming pool.”

Best swimming pool in the world: Sandra goes in for a dip at Dores.

On that occasion Sandra didn’t get the chance to try out the ice swim.

“I slipped on the ice and broke my forearm and wrist.

“I’ve got a habit of breaking things.”

Looking to the future, Sandra has big plans.

“I would love to go back to Russia for the ice swim,” said Sandra.

Asked what advice she would give to a budding open-water swimmer, Sandra said: “Don’t do it on your own.

“The other thing I watch is my time in the water, especially heading towards winter.”

For more information about Inverness Swimming Club check out their website.

Phil Hawkins – glider

Going above and beyond is something Phil Hawkins knows all about.

Never one to keep his feet on the ground, the 73-year-old can usually be found gliding alongside golden eagles and buzzards in the skies above the Cairngorms.

As a proud member of the Cairngorm Gliding Club, Phil is quite literally flying through later life with no plans to stay grounded.

Ready for take-off: Phil enjoys taking passengers up in his two-seater glider.

“Sometimes when you’re up in the air you get magic things like flying alongside a golden eagle, a buzzard or an osprey,” said Phil.

“A good flight lasts for quite a while afterwards.

“You’re still re-living it several days later, so it gives you a high that lasts for quite a while.”

High flier: Phil takes fellow Cairngorm Gliding Club member Andy Farr up for a flight at the club’s base at Blackmill Airstrip, Feshiebridge, Kingussie.

It was after an exhilarating first flight in his mid-20s that started Phil’s love affair with gliding.

“You don’t forget your first flight,” said Phil.

“At the club where I learned in Oxfordshire they drag a steel cable out across the field behind a tractor and they launch you up in the sky against the wind, it’s a bit like flying a kite.

“Because it was a steel cable, I got into the air extremely suddenly, it’s a very abrupt acceleration as the take off speed is around 60 miles an hour.

“It was quite an amazing experience.

“At the Cairngorm Gliding Club where I am now they launch by plane tow, which is a bit more sedate, so you get off the ground a lot more slowly.

Head for heights: Phil loves nothing more than being up in the air.

Just six months later, Phil was enjoying solo flying expeditions.

“It was certainly a novel experience to be looking down at birds instead of looking up at them,” said Phil.

After spending years flying over the flat countryside in Oxfordshire, Phil and his wife Fiona moved up to Newtonmore and he hasn’t looked back since joining the Cairngorm Gliding club.

“The difference of flying around the mountains here is that you get lift from the wind blowing up the slopes, which are called mountain waves, so there’s more opportunities for extended flying here,” said Phil.

Above and beyond: Phil is gliding into his later years.

Phil says that anyone who can drive a car can pilot a glider.

“A glider is just like an aircraft without an engine and it flies by sliding down a slope.

“It’s like free-wheeling a bike down a hill.

“As long as you can keep going down that slope and you can maintain speed and you’re flying, you can go wherever you like as long as you’ve got the height.

“It’s great to fly along the mountain ridges and wave to the hillwalkers.

“Sometimes the hillwalkers send us pictures.”

Landing on his feet: Phil hopes to inspire younger people to take up gliding.

Soaring through the sky, Phil can reach dizzying heights and even has an emergency bottle of oxygen in his glider in case he goes too high.

“On a good day you can be anywhere between 5,000 to 6,000 feet high, which is more than a mile high.

“Flying over the mountains is a different kind of flying because you’re always hoping to contact mountain waves which take you higher.

“I’ve been up to about 18,000 feet and the club altitude record is something like 28,000 feet.

“You need oxygen at that height of course.”

Winging it: The Cairngorm Gliding Club is looking for new members.

It’s clear that gliding not only keeps Phil mentally fit but physically fit too.

“The amount of time you spend in the air is quite small compared to the amount of time you spend on the ground doing daily inspections, aircraft maintenance and driving vehicles up and down the airfield,” said Phil.

“There’s always job to do to help somebody else fly until it’s your turn to fly and they help you.

“It’s a very sociable sport and it does keep you fit.”

Head in the clouds: Phil and fellow member Andy soar through the skies above the Cairngorms.

Phil plans to continue taking to the skies in his two-seated glider, especially as his wife also enjoys regular trips in the clouds.

“I would just like to go on doing it as long as I can.”

He hopes his story will inspire younger people to take up gliding as a sport.

“The average age of the club is over 50 so we’re always looking around for young members to keep the club going in future years.”

For more information about Cairngorm Gliding Club, check out their website.

Rod Campbell – hill runner/rock climber

They may say that everything goes downhill after you reach a certain age, but for Rod Campbell there’s no better feeling than going downhill.

Body buzzing with a mixture of adrenaline and endorphins, the 75-year-old from Alford feels fitter and stronger than ever as he reaches the bottom of the steep hill he’s just run up and back down.

Over the hill: Rod Campbell proves that you’re never too old to enjoy hill running and rock climbing.

As a keen hill runner and rock climber, things are certainly looking up for Rod as he approaches his late 70s.

“I don’t think you live any longer but I do think you die happier,” joked Rod, when asked if he thinks his passion for heights keeps him young.

“I always feel better at the end of a run than before it.

Going downhill: Rod loves the exhilarating feeling he gets when running down a mountain.

For more than 40 years, Rod has been scaling the mountains both on foot and dangling from a rope.

Growing up near Manchester, Rod’s daredevil spirit was evident in some of the exploits he used to get up to with his friends.

“I wasn’t at the front of the daredevil antics but I could be cajoled into joining them,” said Rod.

“I can remember the daredevil boys used to do much riskier things and I would follow.

“It was things like crossing ravines by tip toeing across waste pipes.”

On the run: Rod loves running up and down hills.

With hills on his doorstep, Rod started rock climbing in the mid 1970s before trying out hill running for the first time in 1980.

And his love for heights has only grown after retiring to Alford in Aberdeenshire seven years ago with his partner Sue Taylor, where they are both members of the Cosmic Hillbashers, a hill-running club based in Aberdeen.

“My forte is running downhill because it’s quite technical,” said Rod.

“You have to use a lot of different faculties, your eyesight, your proprioception while also judging the ground and the route.

“I really enjoy that.”

Rod is not only the oldest member at the Cosmic Hillbashers but he’s also the oldest member of the Cairngorm Club’s rock-climbing section.

Rock star: Rod makes rock climbing look easy.

“I recently climbed the Mitre Ridge at Beinn A’Bhuird in the Cairngorms,” said Rod.

“It’s a 200-metre rock climb on to the ridges.

“It was a 12-hour day but I managed it OK thanks to support from my younger colleagues.”

Rod’s head for heights has led him to some of the most dangerous peaks in the world.

On one particular trip to the Argentière Glacier in the French Alps, Rod had a near-death experience when he almost fell down a crevasse.

Reaching new heights: Rod still enjoys rock climbing.

“We had climbed to the top of the glacier and had a cup of tea,” said Rod.

“We were heading back down the glacier on what appears to be a path.

“I’d seen professional guides jumping 20 to 30 feet down different sections on to snow.

“But when I tried, I missed and slid down a wet stony slab, right to the edge where the ice meets the rock.

“My feet were dangling right down the gap.

“I was only saved by my rucksack which jammed in the gap and stopped me falling.”

Going the extra mile: Rod can be spotted running up and down hills with his friends at the Cosmic Hillbashers club.

Rod has also climbed the Chulu Far East Peak Climb in the Himalayas.
“It’s the highest hill I’ve climbed,” said Rod.

“It was a fairly technically easy climb.”

Rod, who also used to compete in ski marathons, says climbing or running up mountains gives him a different perspective on life.

“If you’ve done some death-defying route in the Himalayas or the Alps and you’re lucky to escape with your life, then everyday stresses are not so bad in comparison.”

Together with his sporting endeavours, Rod also has a secret weapon.

“I have at least half a buttery every day,” said Rod.

And asked if he’ll keep going as he gets older, Rod replied: “My motto is rock till you drop.”

To find out more about the Cairngorm Club go to their website or for more information about the Cosmic Hillbashers check out their website