John Lysak

As we posted a few days ago, we here at Oldest Olympians learned that American canoeist John Lysak, born August 16, 1914, who was believed to be the oldest living Olympian, died January 8, 2020 in Fremont, California, at the age of 105 years, 145 days. This makes him the fourth longest lived Olympian of all time. One might expect that we would have heard of this news much sooner but, as frequent readers will be aware, information on the oldest Olympians can be very difficult to come by. In fact, were it not for some detective work, we would remain unaware that Lysak died at the beginning of the year.

(John Lysak, pictured in a July 27, 2008 edition of The Mercury News)

This work began with a request from German researcher Gunnar Meinhardt, who wanted to produce a story about the oldest living Olympian for the German newspapers Welt am Sonntag and Welt. No story about Lysak had been written since July 27, 2008, when he was covered in The Mercury News at the age of 93, although we had presumed that he was still alive based on public records. Meinhardt contacted top Olympic historian and founder of the OlyMADMen Bill Mallon on September 7 and Mallon forwarded the request to us. We, in turn, passed on the contact information that we had and looked forward to what would hopefully be a detailed interview.

It was not to be. Meinhardt exhausted all of our contact options for Lysak within two days and turned to us for more help. We then tried to contact Keith Lysak, John’s son who lived with him, but were similarly unsuccessful. Thus, we had to get creative. Oldest Olympians tracked down the closest living relative that we could find, Lysak’s great-niece Barbara Zinter, who worked for the Village of Bergen, New York.

Mallon contacted Zinter who, unfortunately, could not provide a definitive update on Lysak. She had, however, heard that he may have died within the last year, and informed us that one of his caretaker sons, Michael, was also deceased. Determined to solve the mystery, Mallon contacted Mark Purdy, the writer of the story in The Mercury News, but the key clue came in the former of the obituary of a man named Andrew Syka, who died March 10, 2020 at the age of 99. A comment in the obituary by Lucille Greenlee noted that Syka was lifelong friends with John Lysak… who had died in January. Greenlee was Lysak’s sister-in-law.

Based on this information, Mallon assembled a list of nearly a dozen individuals connected to either Syka or Greenlee who might be able to provide further information. In the end, however, a series of dead ends left us frustrated, but it was ultimately a small genealogy website that provided the final clue:

(Félix Sienra, pictured at the Facebook page of Panathlon Distrito Uruguay)

This page provided us with a full date of death, January 8, 2020, confirming that Lysak had died at the age of 105 years, 145 days. This meant that Finnish track athlete Aarne Kainlauri, born May 25, 1915, had been the oldest living Olympian for just over two months, until his own death in March 11, 2020. We believe that, since then, Uruguayan sailor Félix Sienra, born January 21, 1916, has been the oldest living Olympian.

To close out this blog post, we have some additional sad news: we were informed that Jasper Blackall, born July 20, 1920, who was believed to be the oldest living British Olympian, actually died at some point between 2018 and 2020, prior to turning 100. This means that the current oldest British Olympian is another medal-winning sailor, David Bowker, born March 15, 1922, who took silver in the 5.5 metres class at the 1956 Melbourne Games.