Old swimmers never die; they just get better

Swimming's low-impact workout is a favorite among older athletes  Credit: Allsport
Snowboarding at age 75? Mountain biking at 87? Skydiving at 100? Not likely. Swimming at 105? Absolutely. Your local pool is the closest thing on earth to the fountain of youth.

In other aerobic sports, gravity plus age adds up to diminishing performance. But not in swimming. No other sport puts so little stress and strain on your body. And in no other sport, can you actually get better as you get older.

And we mean older not the skewed ages of most competitive sports, where 30 is considered old and 40 is ancient. There are people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s who can excel at swimming.

The best thing about this phenomenon, say these swimmers, is that it can happen to you too. You just need to be curious, open, and positive, they say. Funny, but the experts agree with them.

You have a sport where you dont have the muscular-skeletal problems that aging runners experience, says Patty Freedson, Ph.D., a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. These problems require them to cut back on training just to reduce the injuries.

Swimming is a sport in which you can train and compete decade after decade. Every season theres a new way to refine your stroke, a new way to train in and out of the water. Swimmers in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and older are capable of far more than they realize if theyre willing to fight hard against the effects of aging.

People are capable of more, as long as they continue to keep themselves in shape, says Boston exercise physiologist Brad Sullivan. Physical strength and endurance can be maintained very well. It all depends on how hard you work. Some people just continue to excel as they age.

We tracked down some of these swimmers and asked them how they do it every year. Heed their advice and watch your times go down as your age goes up.

Nancy Ridout, who had little success at swimming until 1972, when at age 30 she signed up for a new program called U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS). Today Ridout is president of USMS, and 12 world record certificates hang in her office in Novato, Calif.

Swimming has evolved a great deal since I was a kid, Ridout says. We didnt have the training methods, we didnt wear goggles, we had to touch the wall on the turns, we didnt have the kind of lane lines or suits we have now.

Masters swimming, technical innovations, and hard work collaborated to reinvigorate Ridouts swimming career.

I had some goals in life, and one of them was to break a minute in the 100-yard free, she says. I had that goal when I was a teenager, but I figured it was down the tubes, never going to happen. All of a sudden, Masters swimming started and I took advantage of it.

Four years after joining USMS, Ridout finally broke a minute in the 100. Ten years later, she clocked a 58.2 in the 100 and a 26.5 in the 50-yard free.

Today, she swims 3,000 to 3,500 yards per workout five or six days a week, and she plans to set more records in her 60s and 70s.

A bit optimistic, but why not?
Drury Gallagher figures hes about halfway through his brilliant swimming career.

Ive got another 40 to 50 years to do this thats my goal, the 61-year-old says with a straight face. With all the new medical advances and nutritional supplements, theres no reason in the world I cant keep swimming until Im somewhere between 100 and 120.

Gallagher learned to swim as a youngster riding the waves five hours a day from May to September at Rockaway Beach in New York City. He was good enough to make All-American in high school and at New Yorks Fordham University, but then he gave up serious swimming for 14 years. He began Masters in his mid-30s, but had limited success until age 40.

Then Gallagher won the 200-yard backstroke at the Masters Nationals in Mission Viejo, Calif., in 1978.

That gave me the taste of blood, he says. It fired me up and I started to push. He began to train harder and win consistently, setting numerous Masters world records. He says he knows far more about swimming today than he did in his youth and continually adds to his knowledge.

Youve got to understand the physical part about your body, about conditioning, about training. Youve got to prepare as you go into your 70s, 80s, and 90s, says Gallagher, who lives in Manhasset, New York. Some people will tell you that when you hit 50, its all downhill. I dont accept that. I say, Nope, Im going to try to push myself, I think its somewhere between 60 and 70.'

Im fanatical about living to 120. But in order to accomplish that, youve got to do certain things. If you dont do them, you aint gonna get there or youre gonna get there in a lousy state of health.

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