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.
I have taken aquafit classes on and off for years. Never before have I met an instructor as skilled as Dana Pelham at the College Street West End YMCA in Toronto. He is a master of his craft, with a large following of fans including the 30 or more (many seniors and an increasing number of men) who faithfully attend his classes, several times a week. His energy, enthusiasm and good spirits leave the group smiling and upbeat after a workout which is surprisingly rigorous.
His is a model for creative and effective teaching. Unlike many instructors, Dana breaks down his movements and concentrates on having them done correctly before he begins counting. He starts with the basics, adds variations, and then offers a challenge. It is fun mimicking a marionette, jumping over a candlestick, or jumping in circles, first to the side, then to the back, then three-quarters, then all the way around. Crunches and lunges are less tedious done in the water. That he names them for what they are makes us realize that we are doing a classic exercise, but we have the added benefit provided by water resistance. I will take his word for the claim that his dreaded snake exercise strengthens every muscle in the body. It certainly feels like it. He does exercises for balance, and for the brain, particularly important for the seniors in the class. And he works on our breathing.
His teaching is eclectic, drawing from different sports to engage the participants and make them work harder than otherwise they would. He uses boxing, running, soccer, dance, water walking, tai chi, cross-country skiing, yoga, basketball, tennis, and whatever else he draws from his bag of tricks. One day we were to imagine ourselves dribbling a ball as we ran and pivoted in the pool. Another he suggested we use our noodles to earn an “aquafit twinkle toes award.” Another he challenged us to do a steeplechase. Racing back and forth on the side of the pool, he created the scenario of us running a Canadian national championship, four laps with three short jumps and one big jump on each lap. He started us at 56th in the pack, moved us to 45th, then down to 39th, then down to 28th, then 15th, 14th, and 12th, then down to fourth, third, and finally second… sometimes he fantasizes that we win. Fantasy is fun, and it makes the time for a fast sprint in the water fly by.
He really mixes up his classes, so they are never boring. Sometimes he makes us run across the pool at increasingly faster paces. First to the count of ten, then to the count of nine, then eight, etc. Other times, he has us water walking on the noodles the length of the pool. This is not easy, but it is good exercise and the ride on the noodle is a treat.
There is no Olympic gold medal for World’s Greatest Aquafit Instructor. And, of course, my experience in such classes is not universal. But how could anyone be better than this superb instructor with his comprehensive command of movement, his excellent communication skills and his enthusiasm? His grin and his good humour are infectious. No matter what the pace, participants try harder. When I take his classes, Dana makes my day. Thanks, Dana.