EDEN MILLS – A few days before his 88th birthday in 2018, Clint Eastwood was golfing with musician Toby Keith and shared that he’d be starting work on his film The Mule.
Struck by Eastwood’s relentless energy at an age where most are content with retirement, Keith asked what motivated him. He said, “I get up every day, look in the mirror and say ‘Don’t let the old man in.’”
This story resonates with Eden Mills resident Charlie Barnes, who strives to live by the same mantra.
Barnes was born in 1937 and grew up in old North Toronto during the post-war boom. He considers himself very fortunate to have had a good education, a stable career and excellent health well into his 80s.
He attended elementary and secondary school in Toronto and was part of a track and field team that won the city championship.
After graduating from McGill University in September 1961, Barnes travelled to England to see the country where his family had its origin.
In Scotland, he met June, and the couple married the following year. Together they moved to Ontario, eventually purchasing a 50-acre farm where they’ve lived for more than five decades.
The ‘college try’
The triathlon wasn’t introduced as an Olympic sport until the games in Sydney, Australia in 2000. The event included a 1.5km swim, 40km cycle and 10km run.
Kingston resident Simon Whitfield brought home the gold medal for Canada in the inaugural competition.
“When a Canadian won the gold medal, the sport suddenly became really popular,” Barnes said in a July 12 interview. His introduction to the sport came the same year, when he participated in a “Try-A-Tri” in Milton — half the distance of a full triathlon.
He was 62 years old when his daughter persuaded him to register since he’d been cycling, running and swimming independently most of his life. After placing first in the event, he was hooked.
“There are some guys who can swim, some guys who can run, and some that can cycle, but when you put the three together, the field gets very small,” he said.
In the summer of 2004, Barnes competed in his first Olympic-length triathlon at Guelph Lake and placed second in the 65 to 69 age group.
He has competed in dozens of triathlons since, and stepped atop the podium at each.
“In my first full triathlon I placed second, so I just carried on with them. I probably did three or four each summer over the last 20 years,” Barnes said.
During a three-year stretch, he competed in a dozen triathlons, placing first in each.
Of the 70 or so triathlons he’s competed in, Barnes has finished all.
A history of fundraising
In February of 2003, Barnes’ daughter lost her husband to hypoglycemia – a condition in which the blood sugar level dips to a life-threatening range. A Type 1 diabetic, he hadn’t monitored his blood sugar levels closely enough.
Weeks later, Barnes’ seven-year-old grandson was diagnosed with the same condition.
“That’s when I decided to run the Toronto Marathon and raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF),” he said.
Barnes emailed everyone in his contact list seeking sponsorship.
He managed to raise $6500 his first year. Between 2003 and 2017, he raised over $90,000 for the charity.
In 2010 Barnes qualified for a place on Team Canada to compete in the World Triathlon finals in Beijing. It was his first international event, and he placed fifth in his age group.
Since then, he’s competed in international events in London, Rotterdam and Montreal, placing fourth, third and second, respectively.
He was 85 years old when won the silver medal at the 2022 World Triathlon Championships.
“The race in Montreal last year was one of the hardest runs I’ve done. It was especially difficult for me, and I remember thinking ‘Just keep going Charlie,’ and was so focused on the fact that I had to finish.”
In 2018, he began to focus his efforts on the Tour de Guelph. To date, he has raised over $75,000 for the Guelph General Hospital and Guelph Rotary in five consecutive years.
Of the 700 cyclists who participated this year, he was the top fundraiser bringing in more than $26,000.
“I started fundraising three months ago and sent personal emails to about 350 friends and family and received over 200 donations from across nine time zones, including San Francisco, Victoria, and even overseas from London and Rotterdam,” he said.
Winning is a huge motivator for Barnes.
“I didn’t know if I could win the triathlon, but I knew that I could be the best fundraiser.”
“I had joined the Guelph rotary club, and one of the members said to me: ‘They’re not giving to the hospital Charlie, they’re giving to you.’”
Barnes’s strategy for fundraising was simple, but effective. Rather than sending out generic, pre-written requests, he took the time to personalize each email, with a link to his fundraising page.
Much like finishing the run at the Montreal race, fundraising became a challenge for Barnes, to which he again told himself, Just keep going Charlie.
Barnes has been the top fundraiser for the Tour de Guelph for the last five years.
“My silver medal win last June has been a real selling feature of my message,” he said.
Just keep going
Barnes met Simon Whitfield coincidentally at the 2012 Toronto Triathlon Festival. He’d happened to be in the bike compound at the same time. Whitfield said he’d be in London the following week as the flag bearer for the Canadian Olympic team.
Barnes recalled him saying how proud he was to be chosen for the honour.
At the same event, he met Lynda Lemon of Welland, another world-class triathlete.
Lemon was six years younger but ended up competing in several of the same races across the province and throughout Europe.
In 2017 they competed in a race at Guelph Lake and after crossing paths during the race, decided to cross the finish line together.
Lemon has competed in 24 duathlon and triathlon world championships, winning four gold, three silver and three bronze medals.
She stays in touch with Barnes to this day.
Asked what the secret is to staying healthy as an older adult, Barnes said his three keys to “keeping the old man out” are food, fitness, and fun.
Though his competition times have slowed in recent years, his drive and dedication to raising money for worthy causes is as fervent as ever.
In 2019 Barnes received a letter from the City of Guelph announcing he was being inducted in to the Guelph Sports Hall of Fame.
A plaque now hangs on the wall, honouring his achievements.
To make a contribution visit tourdeguelph.ca, click donate, and search “Charlie Barnes.”