Why - Alex Rotas

Alex Rotas
Tony Bowman
Olga Kotelko

Why Wedmore?

Dr Alex Rotas explains her reasons

What did you know of Wedmore before getting involved with our Arts Festival? I used to live along the road from Wedmore in Wookey and have very good friends in the village, so I’ve been a frequent visitor over the years. I have always admired the combination the village seems to offer of rural charm without rural sleepiness! Something always seemed to be going on there. And now the Wedmore Arts Festival. Well. I rest my case.

What do you prefer - Somerset Cider or Cheddar Cheese?  Hmmm. Tough one this. I’ll go for cider…

Which of our many Somerset tourist attractions is your favourite? Wells Cathedral. What a beautiful place that is. I’ve been to so many concerts there and the acoustics are incredible. And as a photographer, there is just always so much to enjoy. I also love watching the sun setting on the façade, on that gorgeous mellow stone.

And which in the rest of the world?  I’m not a great tourist. Bucket lists of places to visit have never been for me. But I travel a lot, partly because so many of my family and friends live outside the UK and partly because my work as a sports photographer takes me to lots of wonderful places. Three years ago I went to Izmir in Turkey, to photograph a massive athletics championships for older (or‘masters’) athletes and I had a magical time. The city was rough, loud and hectic but in my memory every day brought new joys. I was travelling with an 80 year old athlete from Ireland, Dorothy McClennan, and in the evening we’d meet up and compare notes about our day. She spent a lot of the time, when she wasn’t competing, sun-bathing (in the teeniest of teeny bikinis, I have to say) at a hotel swimming pool neighbouring our more modest one. I was chasing around a massive stadium on the other side of town, photographing extraordinary athletes aged up to their 90s, competing in the fierce heat. I made some very special friends, including a young Turkish photographer (male) and one of the officials (female). I remember laughing what feels like pretty much all the time. Now, when I read about the turbulent events in Turkey, I think about the kind and gentle people I met, and hope they are okay.

Which photographer/ veteran athlete do you most admire? There are so many wonderful, top-class photographers, but the one I’m going to go for is my Turkish friend and colleague, Baris Barlas. I met him when we were both photographing the European Veteran Athletics Championships in Izmir, Turkey, in the summer of 2014. He’s such a skilled photographer and yet he was working with fairly limited (and damaged!) equipment. He was totally unfazed by either the equipment or the damage. He really taught me how much a skilled photographer can achieve, irrespective of the camera. He was a jobbing photographer with a passion for sport, especially ‘para’ sport (he had a profoundly disabled elder brother). He is a lovely, sweet man with a wicked and ever-present sense of humour. He was also very generous in sharing some of his amazing skills with me, and gave me lots of tips. He’s a great photographer and now a dear friend.

It’s tough deciding which veteran athlete I admire most. Each has a story – and I’m looking forward to sharing some of these stories at the Festival. As they get older, most of them face the same sorts of health issues we all do. They fall, they break bones, they need hip or knee replacements, they have heart attacks, strokes, cancers. But they also have a ‘bloody minded’ attitude to their misfortunes.

But to pick just two: Tony Bowman, now 81 (and a half, as he insists). A world champion hurdler (think about it, a man in his 80s, hurdling…), he always crosses the finishing line looking as though he’s about to have a heart attack. He just can’t hold himself back. Once the starting gun goes, he says, there’s nothing else he can do; his competitive instinct takes over. A couple of years ago he did in fact need heart surgery, but six months later there he was again, ‘rattling with pills’, and back on the track winning medals. Tony calls himself ‘the luckiest and healthiest 81 year old in the country’.

The other is a woman, the late, great Canadian masters athlete, Olga Kotelko. Olga was born in 1919 and she only took up athletics when she was 77 and found herself thrown off her softball team for being ‘too old’. Undaunted, she thought to herself that she could run and she could throw, so why not start learning some of the events in athletics? She pretty much mastered all of them. In March 2014, she turned 95 and was delighted to enter a new age group (in masters athletics you compete in 5 year age bands and they change on the zero and five of your age). So now she was the new kid on the block in the 95-99 year old age group. She got herself on a plane from her native Vancouver and travelled to Budapest to compete in the World Masters Indoor Athletics Championships in her new age category. She won nine gold medals there, competing in events including the high jump, the long jump and triple jump, the 60m sprint and an array of throwing events (discus, javelin, shot put amongst them) and she created new world records in seven. Olga was full of life, always interested in whoever she was talking to, full of curiosity and always ready to burst out laughing. She was an absolute joy to talk to – unassuming, open-hearted…and very competitive on the track. She died two months after this event, in her sleep, just days after competing in a local competition in Vancouver. She didn’t decline into deteriorating ill-health, she died ablaze. And as such she was just the best role-model for how I’m sure we’d all like to age, and then eventually to die. Do I admire her? You bet your life I do.

After Wedmore, what’s your next project? I’m off in August to Aarhus in Denmark to photograph the 2017 European Masters Athletics Championships and I’m very excited about that. I know the athletes will be amazing, and I’ve never been to Denmark, so it’s win-win for me, whichever way I look!

Book now

Alex will be speaking at 12 noon on Thursday 13 July in the Club Room at The Swan Wedmore. The talk will be followed by a light lunch with the speaker in The Swan.

Tickets: £8 / £20 to include lunch