During a recent Masters meet at Ithaca College, I swam the slowest 1000-yard freestyle of my life. And it may have been as valuable a gift as any I've received from 45 years of competitive swimming. You see, it provided a new perspective that could lead to limitless enjoyment in swimming—and competing—over the next 30 or more years, should I have the good fortune to swim that long.
Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by Masters swimmers, at least after age 40, isn't the physical fight against the gradual slowing of one's times with age—it's being able to accept that inevitability with grace, and focus on all the positives that accompany being a goal-oriented athlete at a stage in life when many of your peers are easing off.
For over four decades, the 1000-yard swim has served as a key benchmark because I've swum it more often than any other race. Between 1968 and 1972, I swam it nearly 50 times in college dual meets. That familiarity drew me to it when I joined Masters at 38. It also had more emotional resonance for me than other races because, as a "mature" swimmer, being able to approach my college times was a great source of pride.
My lifetime record for the 1000 is 10:45, recorded in a dual meet in December 1970. But my speed that day was wildly improbable and even inexplicable. Most of my 1000-yard swims fell between 11 and 12 minutes, shaped like a bell curve across four years of college.
As a 17-year old freshman my best time was 11:59, after spending most of the season around 12:30.
At 18 and 19 I swam consistently around 11 minutes. As a 20-year old senior, slowed by fatigue from overtraining, my times slowed steadily. By season's end I sometimes struggled to break 12 minutes—a painful way to finish my once-promising swim career.
I began swimming again at age 38, after a 17-year layoff. During the next few years, I improved my 1000 times steadily from 12:00+ to a Masters best of 11:23, my split for the final 1000 yards of a 1650 race at age 41. That was faster than some races I'd swum 20 years earlier. Swimming that fast went beyond satisfying; it even restored my faith in myself after finishing college in such a disappointing fashion.
Between my mid-40s and early 50s, the pursuit of fast times took a backseat to developing Total Immersion as a method and business. I swam regularly, but used my pool sessions mainly as a laboratory to refine drills and skills in the Total Immersion curriculum. I swam often in open water races, but infrequently in pool meets. When I did swim the 1000, my times ranged between 12:30 and 12:50, which I considered respectable.
At age 55 I decided to test the proposition of what 'high performance' could mean when I was well into middle age. As before, the clearest test would be how my time for 1000 yards compared to my younger days. The answer came in April 2006 at the Colonies Zone Championship when I swam 11:53, a time that thrilled me as it was faster than I'd swum in 14 years—and nearly as fast as I'd swum 35 years earlier as a college senior.