Into Competitive Swimming at 78

Did you see the recent story in the Globe and Mail about the “Centenarian… star swimmer?” A former Royal Canadian Air Force veteran and insurance executive, Jaring Timmerman discovered competitive swimming in 1987 at 78 years of age. After unexpectedly winning the gold medal in the 200-metre freestyle at a Senior Olympics event, he went on to win 160 medals over the next 25 years. Last January, he set two world records in the 50-metre freestyle and 50-metre backstroke events in newly created categories, for swimmers 105 to 109 years of age.

I was attracted to this story because I have recently taken up swimming. I learned to swim as a child, but never perfected the skill nor learned how to do the strokes that give the most bang for the buck. I have friends, however, who are setting new standards for physical fitness. One who is exactly my age walked the Ottawa Army Run half-marathon in September in pouring rain with a time of just under three hours. Another is training for a triathlon for her 59th birthday next year. Another has set himself the goal of running a half-marathon in every province and territory in Canada before his seventy-fifth birthday. I’ve decided that running or speed walking is not my thing. What I would like to do, however, is swim back and forth across the pool in a calm manner, using good form, for regular exercise. With luck, this could set me up for life.

Dana Pelham at the West End YMCA (“the world’s greatest aquafit instructor“) has had a long career coaching swimming, including coaching severely disabled people new to the water. It occurred to me one day that it was a wasted opportunity not to learn to swim from someone like Dana. So off I went to his drop-in adult swim class one Monday morning.

There were five of us in that class, four good swimmers perfecting their technique and me. My first day was a bit of a disaster. We were set up for drills down half the length of the short 18-metre pool. It has been so long since I have swum, I had forgotten how to breathe, let alone knowing how to do any strokes. The first day I was swimming without goggles, and my eyes suffered all afternoon. Buying a pair of goggles solved that problem. The water persisting in my left ear was a nuisance until I discovered that ear plugs are a simple solution. Such equipment makes all the difference.

Dana is superb with form. He takes each stroke, tears it apart and puts it back together again, on land, in the water and in our heads. In dissecting the recovery for the front crawl, for example, he said “pretend you are a marionette and the puppeteer first lifts your elbow out of the water and the hand follows, place your arm at a 15 degree angle, reach and angle your hand into the water, then bend the elbow and pull down so that your arm is flat, like a table, pull right through to the thigh and then release the hand with a push.” At one point, he advised that I turn my head to actually look at my recovery stroke and see if my arms “looked like those of a gull.” I know gulls and finally hit it bang on. The second week, I learned the theory of breathing, although applying it is something else again. But Dana is totally upbeat, always accentuates the positive, and ends on a high note. A teacher par excellence.

“Marion’s quest for gold 2019?” A friend who has timed Masters Swim competitions suggested that I should take it on as a project for my 75th birthday. I have since learned that there are many Masters Swim Clubs holding meets across the country and anyone over 18 (!!!!) qualifies as a Masters swimmer. But the field narrows drastically with the decades, and heats are broken down by age, distance and stroke so most of the really senior Masters win some ribbon or another. As I am a pre-boomer, my chances may be even higher. When I mentioned it to Dana, he nodded sagely and said that “maybe… in five years.” Realist? Optimist? But there is no down-side. Rhoda Colville was swimming into her eighties, and Jaring Timmerman into his hundreds. All I really want to do is swim efficiently and with some grace. That will be hard enough.

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    • Marion

      Thanks for the input Larry. I see that in Australia, they define anyone over thirty as a “Master.” Is that really true? And if that is the case, are there really any senior Masters (over 40? over 65?) who participate?

  1. Frances

    Go for it Marion! Seems like swimming is your chosen field of interest. So long as you are having fun and mastering the techniques, nothing else is important.


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