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Mary Lee Watson Came to Masters in her 50s

"We don't think we're old!"

Meg Smath | July 19, 2000

"A day without water is like a day without sunshine." Those are the immortal words of Mary Lee Watson. And what appropriate words they are! It's impossible to think of Mary Lee without thinking about water. My earliest memory of her is from West Meade Swim Club in Nashville, Tenn. That's where she taught me—and just about every other kid in West Meade—how to swim. I can still see her standing on the pool deck, in her Newport blue Speedo and flip-flops, trying to teach me how to swim the breaststroke, hollering "gli-i-i-i-i-de" every time I came up gasping for air!

She didn't start out as a competitive swimmer. In fact, she didn't join Masters until she was in her fifties. But she'd been around water all her life. She began swimming at age six with her dad in a lake near Chattanooga. She credits former University of Tennessee coach Bowden Wyatt with getting her more seriously interested in swimming at a summer camp when she was a teen-ager. She graduated from UT, and while there earned her Red Cross water safety certification. She was certified as a Water Safety Instructor in 1962, and has been teaching lifesaving and water safety ever since. Many of those lessons were taught at West Meade Swim Club, where she was manager from 1962 to 1972.

About the only thing Mary Lee didn't do at West Meade was compete. Besides managing the pool and teaching swimming lessons, she lifeguarded, as well as choreographed and performed in the club's annual water ballet—believe it or not, she once conned me into performing a number to the rock classic "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"! Mary Lee even wrote the club's fight song, and I can still remember some of the words: "Go West Meade, down the pool—always a winner—guppies and flounders—make the best kind of dinner!"

There are other things in life besides swimming, of course, and Mary Lee has a wonderful family. She calls her husband Art "truly her better half." They met in college in Tennessee "when he tried to run me over with his motorcycle while I was on my way to play tennis. For whatever reason, it caught my attention and a year and a half later we got married." Art and Mary Lee have four children: Cindy, Vicki, Art Jr. ("Buzzy"), and Allen, and eleven grandchildren. Buzzy was an All-American swimmer at UT and was Mary Lee's coach for many years with the Music City Masters.

Mary Lee was instrumental in forming Music City Masters, and has been either secretary, treasurer, or president since 1985. She got her start in Masters swimming in 1978 when some of the folks at Nashville Aquatic Club, where she'd been swimming laps, "needed a warm body for a relay." She was hooked! Before long she had set national records in the 1650 and 500-yard freestyles and in the 10K relay, not to mention a world record in the 400-meter freestyle. She was a USMS All-American in 1987 and 1989.

As impressive as her accomplishments in the water are, she may have contributed even more to USMS out of the water. She was chairman of the Southeastern LMSC for 12 years, during which time the LMSC hosted short course nationals in Nashville. She began going to the national convention, and when she discovered that the Masters had no hospitality suite at the Memphis convention in 1982, she "found somebody with wheels and bought a few supplies. I guess I was the ‘hostess with the mostest.'" That little stunt got her named the chairman of the Convention Committee from 1983 to 1985. She was chairman of the Marketing Committee from 1985 to 1992, and also found time to serve on the Finance and Rules Committees. She currently is chairman of the Recognition and Awards Committee, and also serves on the Rule Book Committee. On the Rule Book Committee she has been responsible for securing 90 percent of the sponsor ads since the inception of the USMS rule book in 1989.

In 1993 the Tennessee Swimming Hall of Fame realized what a treasure Mary Lee is, and inducted her into its hall of fame. Mary Lee said, "It's the kind of thing dreams are made of." Two years later she was named the winner of the 1995 Ransom J. Arthur Award, the highest award in U.S. Masters Swimming. She said, "It's overwhelming, and I'm humbled. Many of us have dreams of winning such an award, but I did not think I would ever win it." This is a typical self-deprecating remark from a woman who's an inspiration to us all. No one deserves these honors more than she does.

Mary Lee thinks that if she keeps swimming, she won't get old. She says her philosophy is "you're only as old as you think you are and we don't think we're old! And we have no intentions of getting there." I think she's onto something. You just keep swimming, Mary Lee!

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