I remember the moment vividly. It was the summer of 2004, and we had just retired to San Antonio, Texas. The previous November, I had undergone a serious four-hour operation for thoracic outlet syndrome. My surgeon, Dr. Richard Braun, had assured me that if the surgery was a success, I would be able to swim again. In fact, he encouraged me to take the sport back up following my post-surgery rehab.
Our San Antonio community had a 20-yard pool, so I gave it a go. Once I got back in condition, I timed myself in the 50-yard breaststroke, my favorite event when I competed on my high school swim team. Out of curiosity, I looked up the National Senior Games race results for the youngest age group, 50-54 years old, and surmised that in six years, I had a good shot at a medal. It was that moment I said to myself, “When I turn 50, I am going to start competing in the National Senior Games.”
Five years later, we moved to an active retirement community in Georgia, and I competed in my first state senior games meet, Georgia Golden Olympics, the state qualifying meet for the National Senior Games. I medaled and qualified in all my events; however, I opted not to attend the national meet in Cleveland. In retrospect, I regretted that decision. The National Senior Games take place only in the odd years, and I was unable to participate in the following two Games due to hip surgery and a shoulder injury. Missing out on Minneapolis and Birmingham, even though I had qualified for both meets, burned a hole in my heart.
When I qualified in Alabama, in May of 2018, for this year’s National Senior Games, I was more determined than ever to succeed in my goal of competing in Albuquerque. As I waited for my turn on the blocks for my first event, the 100 Yard Butterfly, I had tears in my eyes as I realized I was about to achieve my goal. I gave that race my best effort, so not only had I succeeded; but, I shaved time off my qualifying swim and swam my fastest time in three years, placing 5th for a ribbon (awarded for 4th thru 8th place finishes). Later in the day, I raced my fastest 50 Yard Breaststroke in five years, finishing 12th in a tough field of 21 swimmers. I couldn’t have been happier, even though I had no ribbon to show for it.
My longest race of the meet, the 400 Individual Medley, proved to be a difficult challenge due to the high altitude of over 5,300 feet. Although I was winded during the race and was unable to clock a good time, I was awarded a 6th Place ribbon for my efforts.
The following day, I raced the 200 Butterfly, the most physically demanding event for female Masters swimmers in pool competition. I was one of only 19 women across all age groups to compete in the grueling event. This race, as well as the 200 IM and 200 Breaststroke on my final day of individual races played out much the same as my 400 IM. At the 100-Yard mark, I was winded in a way I had never experienced at sea level. Comparing notes with several of the other swimmers at the meet, I was not alone. Most of the gals had to stop at the walls during parts of their races to catch their breath. Misery loves company, and most of us were in the same boat—uh, make that “pool!”
Getting winded during the most painful 200 Butterfly I had ever swum was well worth it in the end, because I won a bronze medal! (Hey, you have to show up to win!) I really, REALLY wanted one of those medals, because I thought the design was fantastic—a wonderful souvenir of my accomplished goal. Check it out below. Instead of a propane tank to inflate the balloon, it’s an Olympic torch. The “flame” is a red chile pepper and green chile pepper, which, like the hot air balloon, are the iconic symbols that characterize Albuquerque. In addition to the Albuquerque logo on the front, the backside of the medal depicts the National Senior Games logo and motto.
On the final day of swimming competition, Mixed Medley and Mixed Freestyle relays were added to the events for the first time. As in the individual events, the swimmers competed in their own age group; however, the age was determined by the youngest swimmer on the team. I was determined to organize both relays with just swimmers from Georgia to represent our state, so I put out a plea on the Georgia Masters Facebook page. I received an immediate response from Randy Russell (58), and after I was unable to nail anybody else down, he recruited Barbara Ingold (60) and Lane Schuckers (66) during the weeks leading up to the meet. I was able to get a practice run in with Randy during a relay at an April United States Masters Swimming meet at Georgia Tech; however, I had never met Barbara or Lane.
Based on the (accurate at the time) seed times I submitted for our relays, we were in for a fight for a bronze medal. All of us ended up swimming faster than our seed times in our individual events, though, so our hopes were up.
In the Medley Relay, Barbara led off with backstroke, I swam breaststroke, Randy followed with butterfly, and Lane anchored with freestyle. It was a come-from-behind race, but all of us swam our fastest splits of the meet, and we nailed down a bronze medal! Watch it here.
Barbara, Me, Lane (burgundy shirt) and Randy (red hat) receiving our bronze medals.
Then came the Mixed Freestyle Relay with our closest competitor in the neighboring lane. We kept the same race order, and by the time I (the slowest sprint freestyler on our team) finished my leg of the race, we were more than half of a pool length behind. All Barbara and I could do was hope Randy and Lane could make up the deficit. Randy, gold medalist in the 55-59 age group in the 50 Yard Freestyle, closed the gap further; but, what we saw next was simply amazing. 50 Yard Freestyle silver medalist in the 65-69 age group, Lane, swam his heart out! He later said that when he spotted the neighboring swimmer during his flip turn, he put this head down and sprinted the entire last 25 yards without a breath. I never yelled so loud in all my life! As they touched the wall at what I thought was simultaneously, I looked up at the electronic board and saw we had won by .08! Another bronze medal! What a way to finish the meet! We were so excited, we didn’t even swim down after the race. Instead, we gathered in the warm-up pool and celebrated! Want to see something amazing? Check this out!
What a fun and exciting experience these National Games turned out to be. Over 13,700 athletes showed up for the Games, shattering previous attendance records. A couple of World Record holders as well as several USMS (U.S. Masters Swimming) All-Americans and Top Ten swimmers were among the 800+, 50-100-year-olds racing at the West Mesa Aquatic Center. As a result, many National Senior Games records were broken.
That night, Randy and I, along with our spouses, met up at the Celebration of Athletes. Marching in with other Georgia athletes when our state name was called was an exhilarating moment I will never forget. I truly felt like a Senior Olympian!
Georgia swimmers, Chip Woody, Me, and my relay teammate, Randy
Me with Rowdy Gaines
Journalist and World Record Holder (Masters swimming), Marc Middleton, is founder of Growing Bolder.
Kari and I first “met” on the USMS Discussion Forums
Penny Noyes is an All-American USMS swimmer (age 65) I had met previously at Atlanta area meets. She won 7 gold medals, including one in the triathlon, as well as a relay bronze medal and a 4th Place relay ribbon.
Ted and I met in the warm-up pool and encouraged each other throughout the meet.
Relay teammates, Lane & Randy
This photo was taken of fellow USMS “Forumite,” Kurt Dickson, at the conclusion of the meet. Kurt broke National Senior Games records in all six of his individual events, including the 500 Freestyle, where he shattered the record by 20 seconds. He then won gold medals in the mixed medley and mixed free relays. The entire pool area had emptied out, and he was sitting by himself waiting for his wife to pick him up. (She competed in cycling.) His jug of milk had turned warm, but he was powering down a bowl of Cheerios as he waited.