You're never too old to roll, says 92-year-old gymnast

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - World's oldest gymnast tells seniors to keep moving to stay fit and healthy

In the middle of a Marina Bay Sands ballroom stood an unusual contraption - two 1.6m-high parallel bars.

On it, a 92-year-old granny - clad in a tight green leotard - could be accused of failing to act her age.

Her callused, weathered hands gripping the bars, Johanna Quaas vaulted through the air, dived between her legs and balanced on the shoulders before executing an almost perfect planche.

For a full five seconds, the great-grandmother held her body taut and parallel to the ground, with an arm and upper body strength unmatched by most young people a quarter of her age.

The magical moment was broken only by raucous cheers erupting from all corners of the ballroom as Quaas, the world's oldest active gymnast, dismounted gracefully and proceeded to partake of an eight-course Chinese dinner.

Born in Saxony in then East Germany, Quaas was in town last Tuesday and Wednesday to take part in the 8th International Ageing Asia Innovation Forum, a conference for experts to share the latest technology and best practices that support healthy ageing.

Besides the parallel bars at the dinner show, she also performed somersaults, headstands and cartwheels during various demonstrations in the day.

"If you are fit, it is easier to master life," Quaas told The Sunday Times in an interview, through an interpreter.

That is the message she has worked to give to older people as she travels around the world for demonstrations and competitions.

The 2013 Guinness Book of Records listed her as the world's oldest gymnast and she has also been included in the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

Her age-defying feats are a constant source of amazement.

Two years ago, she decided to jump out of a plane in honour of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, who also turned 90 that year.

"I wanted to challenge myself and finish what the monarch had started during the London Olympic Games," she said, alluding to the film clip shown during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Games in which the Queen appeared to jump out of a helicopter with fictional secret agent James Bond, played by actor Daniel Craig.

"It is much easier to jump out of a plane than to do gymnastics because unlike gymnastics, you don't have to do anything," said Quaas, with a laugh.

Quaas first fell in love with gymnastics at school, where she was often seen climbing up and down 5m bars with ease and rolling on the mats doing stunts. When she was 10, she took part in her first competition and was hooked.

Unfortunately, her love affair with the sport ended abruptly with the start of World War II, when all children and youth were enlisted to serve Germany in one way or another. Quaas helped out with farming work, among other duties.

After the war, gymnastics was banned in East Germany as the country focused on team sports instead. Quaas played handball and was a member of the team that won the Eastern German Championship in 1954.

Then she got married, had three children and became a gymnastics instructor to young athletes.

But what might have been a quiet life changed in 1982 when, at the age of 57, she met two old friends who were fellow gymnasts and the trio decided to try training and competing professionally again. One was five years older than her and the other four years younger. The two friends have since died.

That year, Quaas won a regional competition and, to date, she has 11 medals from the German Championships that take place every five years.

"My proudest moment so far was when I was 84 years old and there was no one in my age group competing in the championships. So they put me with the others in the 70-75 age group and I still won by one point," she said.

The sporty, white-haired wonder continues to train for an hour almost every day. She also enjoys hiking, swimming and dancing.

Next month, she will go to Berlin to compete in another international gymnastics festival.

Gymnasts usually cannot remain in the sport for decades because tendons and ligaments stiffen with age, say experts. Bodies need to be flexible to absorb force across the joints, and inflexibility invites injury. But ask Quaas if she is afraid of falling or getting injured and one gets a passionate answer in the negative.

"On the contrary, I do gymnastics to avoid being susceptible to falls and that is a good preventive tool," said Quaas, whose husband died last year. "I don't take any pills now and have no illnesses. The only time I have a slight cold is when I am in Singapore as the air-conditioning is so strong."

The grandmother of two and great-grandmother of one also does not take any nutritional supplements.

Instead, she sleeps six hours a day and eats lots of fruit and vegetables. Her favourite pastime, true to her German roots, is whipping up dishes of pork knuckle and sauerkraut. "My face is old but my heart is young. Maybe the day I stop doing gymnastics is the day I die," said Quaas.

In Singapore, adults can give gymnastics a try in Jurong East at The Yard, which is one of the biggest spaces for the sport here. It runs classes for people of all ages and skill levels.

During her short stay in Singapore, Quaas also met elderly residents at St Luke's eldercare centre in Hougang and St Joseph's Home in Jurong. Keep moving, she urged them.

She said: "You have to do your exercises again and again and again. When there is movement, there is life."