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A Natural Talent for Swimming

"I couldn't live without it"

Phillip Whitten | September 30, 2002

Looking at her, it is hard to imagine that this tall, athletic, graceful, confident woman once suffered from low self-esteem. At age fifty-five, Susan Livingston could easily pass for an attractive forty-year-old. As one talks with her, this feeling is reinforced. She is gracious, knowledgeable, and assertive. She knows what she wants in life and how to go after it, but always with style and class.

Susan, who has three grown children, operates a successful bed-and-breakfast in scenic Marblehead, Mass. She supplements her income as a seamstress specializing in wedding gowns. But her real passion is swimming. Although you would never know it from talking with her, Susan is one of the top women swimmers her age in America.

In keeping with the dominant values of her time, Susan married right after graduating from Smith College and immediately settled down to being a housewife and raising a family. "I never had to do anything that brought me in touch with the grown-up world," she recalls, "not even balance the checkbook. My husband took care of everything. My only job was to be the perfect wife and raise our three children."

When her Ozzie-and-Harriet marriage began breaking up in 1983, Susan was devastated, and totally unequipped to function in a changing world. It was then, quite by happenstance, that she started swimming. A natural, she has been at it ever since. Today, she says, "I couldn't live without it."

When Susan was in college, there were no competitive athletic programs for women, but she did join Smith's synchronized swimming team. Years later she describes herself as "swimming laps with my limp, delicate hands and my head out of the water, as synchro swimmers do, just exercising. I happened to go to a pool when a Masters swimming practice was going on. I just fell into it. Coach Jack Hayden kind of tucked me under his wing, and a month later I was competing."

Susan has been swimming ever since, and in ten years has racked up over forty New England records in the 45 to 49, 50 to 54, and 55 to 59 age-groups. In 1985 she won a national title in the 200-meter backstroke and in 1991, at the age of fifty-three, recorded lifetime best times in several events. But she doesn't worry about her times. "I swim for fun, fitness, and friendship, and I love every minute of it: the practice, local meets, traveling all over the country to the nationals each year, making interesting new friends. It's been a great time."

With her divorce had come a kind of identity crisis, Susan says. "If you weren't somebody's wife, then who were you? Swimming helped me with that. In becoming a swimmer I developed my own identity and a new set of friends who respect me for who I am."

Susan comes by her talent naturally; she is a fine all-around athlete, and her father was a national collegiate swimming champion at Yale. But she had had no previous experience in competition. Perhaps feelings associated with her divorce had something to do with her drive during the first few years she swam in Masters competition. "Now I have nothing to prove. I'd love to go faster, but I do well enough for me."

Along with her new sense of who she was came self-esteem. She says, "Through swimming, I learned I could do anything I set my mind to; swim faster, balance a checkbook, manage my own portfolio, repair the roof, haul the garbage to the dump, or start a successful business. Through swimming I've finally found myself."

from The Complete Book of Swimming, by Dr. Phil Whitten, 1994, Random House

Susan W. Livingston lives in Marblehead, Mass., and swims for New England Masters. She adds the following:

I learned about the All-American web pages when Anne McGuire visited my home town and we swam together. She was a terrific person to know and I loved sharing my pool with her. I especially enjoyed swimming with her when she was not in MY age group (whew!). I learned lots from her page in USMS archives and felt even more intimidated.

I got involved in Masters quite unexpectedly: I started swimming laps at a local pool in December of 1983 as a sort of divorce therapy. One day I went at a different time and discovered a Masters class. A month later, this same pool had a Masters meet: I managed to dive off the blocks, meet some great people and swim well for my age (45), so I was told. That August, I went to Nationals at Raleigh, placed in the top five in six events, and had a wonderful time. Needless to say, I was hooked!

My abilities were identified at the 1984 Nationals, when a swimmer said to me: "Susan, you don't have any fast-twitch muscles, do you!" My style evolved somewhat from the synchronized swimming I did at Smith College, my only previous pool experience.

My enjoyment of Masters competition got a boost when I was profiled in a 1984 New England Masters Newsletter as a "Late Blooming Hotshot".

Having never swum competitively before, I had everything to learn, which was an enjoyable challenge. For several years, I swam avidly (five days a week) and got some good coaching, first from Peter Farragher and then from Joe Shore. The last stroke I learned was the butterfly, which is my next to favorite, second to backstroke.

I have been lucky over the past seventeen years in New England Masters, having set a number of records in SCY, SCM and LCM. I now swim more for fun than glory because of the incredible legacy of Clara Walker who dominates the record books from age 55 up. Fortunately she was not too fond of the 200 butterfly. I used to be known as Ms. Maytag due to a television commercial made in 1974. Now I am known as Madame Butterfly and that pleases me.

My most memorable swim (because my teammates won't let me forget it) was the 200-yard butterfly at Nashville Nationals in 1991 when I swam 250 yards by mistake! I got first place and a lot of ribbing. Besides swimming (three times a week), I keep busy running my bed and breakfast, Harborside House (swimmers welcome; guest pool passes available) and being part of a tandem bike twosome. My three children live relatively near Marblehead and I enjoy being "Nana-Sue" to my two grandchildren.

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