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Remembering Kelley Lemmon, 1999 ISHOF Inductee

Swam for competition and health

Diddo Clark | July 19, 2000

Mentor Kelley B. Lemmon (1912 - 2012)

by Diddo Clark

I met Kelley Lemmon early in the summer of 1981 at a D.C. Masters Swim Team practice at the Haines Point 50-meter pool in Washington, D.C. I was a 31 year old recreational swimmer. Kelley was 69 and held two Masters swimming national records in the men's 65 - 69 age group.

At Haines Point, we were in the water by 5:45 every weekday morning; there were 10 or 12 swimmers per lane; and Coach John Flanagan directed us like a precision drill team. Before long, I was leading the slow lane and Kelly was number two. That was fine for most sets but, at the end of practice, John Flanagan generally assigned 50-meter sprints. I would start; five seconds later, Kelley would start; and everyone else would follow at five second intervals. I would swim as fast as I could but Kelley would pass me and finish ahead of me. I'd say: "Kelley, you start!" But he refused. He just kept passing me.

In those days, Kelley and I, and large numbers of other D.C. Masters, competed in races most weekends. Kelley was faster than I was in every event except for the longest freestyle races. After I had swum with Kelley for half a summer, and been passed and beaten at the end of every practice, I said: "Kelley, I'm hustling to catch up to you and, when I do, you can hustle and catch up to me."

Kelley said: "No. It doesn't work that way. I've reached my peak. I'll just slow down. But your potential is unlimited. You can keep swimming faster and faster and faster."

At the next swim meet, for the first time, I beat Kelley in some of the non-freestyle sprints. That provoked him and we both swam personal best times in practically every meet for the next three years. He turned 70; his personal bests were national and world records; he became the first person ever to swim 100 meters in fewer seconds than his age; and, in 1999, he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Kelley approached his Masters swimming career like a military campaign—with logs, charts, graphs, projections, and performance reviews—all of which he taught me. We calculated when I would pass him in each progressively shorter freestyle event. The most dramatic showdown was in the 100-yard freestyle at a regional championship at the University of Maryland. Kelley and I were seeded in adjacent lanes. Shortly before the start, Kelley whispered to me: "If I don't see your heels at the last turn, you're going too slow." We raced, eyeball to eyeball, practically all the way and I out-touched him by a small fraction of a second—as we had projected.

I watched Kelley's races and he watched mine. He had the best stroke mechanics I've ever seen—and he generally did what the swim-faster books tell us to do—but he got angry if I complemented his stroke or his race. He said he couldn't learn from positive feedback. He demanded, after every race, that I tell him what he could do to improve. He trained me to watch very closely and be very critical. He was always hustling to improve—more than anyone else I've ever encountered.

I was such a recreational swimmer when I started swimming with Kelley that, when I got tired, I'd stop to rest. He told me, explicitly, that I didn't need to do that. So, I didn't do it any more.

During the summer of 1982, my friend Dale Petranech told me that there was going to be a swimming race around Manhattan Island in a month. I immediately imagined myself doing it, and I really wanted to do it, but I had never competed in a long race before and I didn't know if I could, or should. I asked Coach John Flanagan if he thought I could, and should. He said, "yes, yes," and that was an important factor in my being able to swim around Manhattan Island. The biggest factor, though, was Kelley Lemmon. We were at the Masters nationals in Oregon a week before the first Manhattan race. After the nationals, the last thing Kelley said to me as he left for the airport was: "Practice starts up again on September (something). Don't be late!" He was kidding because neither of us were ever late for a D.C. Masters practice. At the briefing immediately before the first Manhattan race, the dozen swimmers were told that we'd have to round the Battery, at the south end of Manhattan, by 4 p.m. or the tide would turn against us and we wouldn't be able to finish. I swam for nine and a half hours in that race. With every stroke, for many strokes, I repeated to myself Kelley's last words to me in Oregon: "Don't be late!" When I got tired and my stroke got sloppy, I played mental movies of Kelley's stroke mechanics and I tried to make my body parts do what his did. I was the last finisher in the first Manhattan race. I have always believed that that was a great way to spend a day—and that I would not have been able to do it without Kelley's help.

A few months later, the 1982 D.C. Masters Christmas party was at Kelley and Mary Lemmon's house in Arlington, Va. After a few hours, I was preparing to leave with some of the last guests when Kelley asked me to stay to help bring in patio furniture. Kelley and Mary and I then talked until Mary said: "I love you both very much but I'm going to bed."

Kelley talked to me for another hour or so. Then: he walked me to my pick-up truck; told me: "You have strength, stamina, intestinal fortitude, and the will to win;" shook my hand; and said "good night."

I was stunned by Kelley's opinion that I had strength, stamina, intestinal fortitude, and the will to win—and I was sure that, to the extent Kelley was right, it was from what I had learned from him and what he inspired me to do. For example, about seven months after that Christmas party, I represented the U.S. in the 23 mile, Atlantic City, Around-the-Island, professional marathon swim. As I swam south for nine miles in the Atlantic Ocean, off Absecon Island, I remembered that Kelley had told me that I have strength, stamina, and intestinal fortitude—which I needed when I reached the south end of the island where the inland waterway was flooding into the ocean at seven knots. No swimmer can make progress against a seven knot current. My boat crew directed me to hug the shore and to swim through the surf—where I was tossed about like a rolling pin. I swam in the shallows until my path was blocked by a rock jetty which protruded into the seven knot current. I braced my feet in the sand, pulled with my arms, and inched forward—three steps forward and two steps back. I was ready to quit; this was an order-of-magnitude more difficult than swimming around Manhattan Island; and I would have quit but for the fact that, then, when I needed it, I remembered the rest of Kelley's quote: "You have strength, stamina, intestinal fortitude, and the will to win." Then I wouldn't quit for anything. For a thousand strokes or more after that, I said to myself with every stroke: "the will to win." Stroke, "the will to win." Stroke, "the will to win." Stroke, "the will to win." I had the will to win because Kelley said I did.

For me, John Flanagan is the greatest swim coach and Kelley Lemmon was the most awesome mentor. The combination inspired me and transformed my life. I was voted D.C. Masters Most Improved Swimmer of the year; I got into the top 10 in every freestyle event in my age group; and I became: the first female to swim around Manhattan Island in less than seven hours, the first person to swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco four times in one day, the first person to swim from the end of the Marin Headlands to San Francisco's Aquatic Park (10k in S.F. Bay with the Golden Gate Bridge midway), and the fastest person to swim from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1985, Marathon Swimming World Champion Paul Asmuth flew me to England to help him break the English Channel swimming record. I was his swimming partner in the English Channel for three weeks and I was on his boat when he broke the English Channel men's record. He really wanted the all-time record but all he could get was the men's. Marathon swimming is the only sport in which men and women compete together in which women hold all the main records, or often do.

Now, Kelley Lemmon has stopped to rest. I loved him (and Mary) for half my life. I'm eternally grateful for the relationship we had that inspired us both. Rest in peace, Kelley. Thank you.



More about Kelley . . .

KelleyLemmon was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) on May 8, 1999.

Lemmon learned to swim in Hawaii and later swam while attending high school in four different states: Delaware, Michigan, Virginia and California. He was a member of the swim team at the U.S. Military Academy, graduating in 1937. For the next four decades, he rarely swam while his army career took him around the world, from Europe and the Philippines to Texas, Massachusetts and Alaska. In 1944, he received a Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism. Attacking across the Seine River, he discovered the bridge across the river had been destroyed. Rather than order one of his men to cross the 350-yard wide river under intense enemy small arms fire, he swam the river, secured five civilian boats, tied them together, paddled them back to shore, and used them to establish a bridgehead.

He retired in the early 1970s as a Major General in the army. In 1979, he began lifting weights and discovered he enjoyed an occasional dip in the pool. He saw John J. Flanagan swimming butterfly and asked him to teach him how to do it. Coach Flanagan encouraged him to join the Masters program and he soon competed in his first meet—the 1980 short course nationals in Ft. Lauderdale.

The nomination form submitted to ISHOF for his induction listed 128 world records, 49 national records and 65 USMS National Championships. He also helped DC Masters win seven national team titles. In three nationals—1982 short course, 1982 long course and 1983 long course—he completed "clean sweeps," winning six events and exceeding records in all six. A 1983 issue of the "Wavemaker," the DC Masters newsletter, reported that at long course nationals he "climaxed his career with eight gold medals, six individual and two relays, thus bettering Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals."

He still holds the world record for 70-74 50-meter free (long course) 29.35 set in 1984. He holds five USMS records in 70-74 50 free (long course), 75-79 50-yard free, 100-yard free and 50-meter free (short course) and 80-84 100-yard breaststroke. He also owns a world relay record—the 320-359 long course mixed 200-meter free relay with DC Masters teammates NancyClark , AnneWalker and David McAfee; and a USMS record in the 75plus 200-yard medley relay with Nancy Clark, Anne Walker and BertKassell.

He was a USMS All-American every year but one between 1981 and 1994. Some of his times were so fast he would have made the USMS Top Ten for several younger age groups. For example, one year his 50-meter free time in the 70-74 age group would have placed eighth in the 50-54 age group. The same year, his 100-meter time would have been second in 65-69, fourth in 60-64 and fifth in 55-59.

An age-graded formula developed by Tara Liljestrom of Finland converts his world record 50 free time of 29.35 to 20.87—well under Tom Jager's world record of 21.81. In 1984, SwimMaster magazine noted that only two people had swum 100 meters in times less than their ages; Kelley Lemmon and PeterPowlison. Kelley finds it interesting that his 70-74 100-meter free record of 1:12.8 is identical to Gertrude Ederle's world record set in the 1920s.

His last All-American times were the 80-84 200-yard free in 1994 and the 80-84 50-, and 100-yard breaststroke in 1993. While shoulder problems ended his competitive career, he still swims recreationally and has not ruled out a comeback.

Award of Distinguished Service Cross, from Nov-Dec 1988 Swim Master, reprinted from NEM News, the New England Masters Swim Club Newsletter, May 1988, p 11.

October 14, 1944 - By direction of the President, a Distinguished Service Cross is awarded to: Lt. Col. Kelley B. Lemmon, Jr. for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy on 23 August 1944 in the vicinity of Fontainebleau, France. This officer, attacking across the Seine River, discovered upon reaching the river that the bridge had been destroyed. Rather than order one of his men to cross the river, which was 350 yards wide at this point and under intense enemy small arms, Col. Lemmon swam the river. Upon reaching the shore he secured 5 civilian boats, tied them together and paddled them back to our shore. These boats were immediately utilized to establish the bridgehead. The outstanding heroism, extreme devotion to duty, and high courage displayed by Col. Lemmon reflects great credit on himself and is in keeping with the highest tradition of the Service. By command of Lieutenant General Patton.

Kelley Lemmon, Senior Superstar, by Kim A. Hansen, Swim Magazine, Jan-Feb 1988.

With a resting pulse rate of 50, Kelley Lemmon is one of the premier senior athletes in the United States. Shattering national records and keeping himself in tiptop shape at 75 years old, his training regimen includes 4-5,000 yards five times per week, and one hour of weight lifting three times per week. How does this senior superstar do it? Recently, SWIM magazine had the opportunity to interview this extraordinary athlete and discover what sets him apart from the rest.

SWIM: Kelley, you look terrific. Would you please comment on your health and physical training habits.

Kelley Lemmon: Well, I turned 75 on the 14th of May, 1987. My health might be described as good. I'm 5'10" and my weight varies from 167 to 172. My resting pulse rate is 50, but I must say that I usually have to take it at one of those quarter machines at a shopping center because even professional medical people have difficulty locating my resting pulse!

I view my Masters training as health maintenance, not from the standpoint of improving my health necessarily, but by way of maintaining the health that I have. And to that end, I have been making some sacrifices you might say, by way of regular exercise and disciplining my intake of calories both liquid and solid—I think I'm being reasonably successful to this end. Sometimes I slack off for the reward of having met my goals and objectives at a national championship and tend to eat and imbibe a little bit too much. I'll do that for a while and gain a few pounds and then decide that it's time to get back to serious work again and pay the piper.

S: Would you mind describing your lifestyle as a "senior" adult? How do you keep yourself going with such a rigorous training schedule?

K: I can best answer that question by saying that I am reluctant and go out of my way to avoid taking senior citizen discounts whether it be at restaurants or movies. I guess the reason for that is some deep psychological quirk whereby I don't wish to admit to myself that I have in fact gotten old. I just don't feel that old most of the time. I think that my activities in Masters and my association with people of all ages and particularly younger people, gives me a broader outlook than most of my contemporaries in the senior categories. I'm particularly aware of this when I'm at a social function with my peers and realize that I'm perhaps in better physical condition than they are and that my outlook encompasses more activities requiring physical exertion than theirs. Therefore, I probably have a better quality of life than they do and I certainly feel that I do have an advantage in this respect

I think that my daily routine during most of the year (with me getting up before dawn to go to workout) has some impact on my outlook for each day. In other words, when I go to bed at night. I know exactly what I'm going to do the next day. I'm going to get out of bed when it's still dark and have a cup of coffee and while I'm having the coffee, I'll decide to go swimming and off I'll go. That gets me started on the day. The only problem is, it's early to bed and I think I do lose something there by not having my full evenings to devote to whatever. But overall, it's a good cycle.

S. In your "younger" years, were you actively involved in athletics? Did your educational background and career path allow time for keeping in tiptop shape?

K: I attended the United States Military Academy and during the four years, I swam competitively. I was captain of the swim team and graduated in 1937. However, after being commissioned as a second Lieutenant of Infantry, I stopped competitive swimming and all swimming, other than an occasional dip in an ocean or lake. My life as an army officer did not lend itself in those days to the type of swimming we now do in Masters. And for that reason, for 43 years after I was commissioned, I did little or no swimming.

S: What memories do you have of being in the U.S. Army? Did you have the opportunity to travel around the world? Is it correct that you are General Lemmon?

K: As an infantry officer, my first tour after graduation was in the Philippines Scout Division, part of which tour was served in Zamboanga in the southern part of the Archipelago. Where according to the song, "the monkeys have no tails in Zamboanga." It was a small, two company post with one company of Visayans (from the island in Central Archipelago) in the company of Moros.

While there, I learned that the U.S. was in a national emergency as declared by President Roosevelt. I returned to the U.S. to participate in the expansion of our army during the national emergency. In our buildup to enter WWII, I served with the 5th Infantry Division in the European Theater. Afterwards, I returned to Washington and served on the War Department General Staff in operations. From then on, my career was a matter of rotating from staff to command jobs and attending schools.

I graduated from the Command and Staff College in 1947; the Army War College in 1957. In 1962, I was promoted to brigadier general and my life changed somewhat; serving in Italy and Europe with NATO. Afterwards, back to Ft. Hood, Texas with the 2nd Armored Division. Then, on to Ft. Devens, Mass. From there, to Alaska in the summer of 1968. As a major general, I was commanding the U.S. Army in Alaska, with my headquarters at Fort Richardson. In the summer of 1970, I returned to Washington, D.C. and retired shortly thereafter.

S: When did you meet your wife, Mary?

K: I met Mary in 1948 on a blind date in Washington, D.C. We were married in 1949 and had four children; two girls and two boys—Kellyn, Maryl, Michael and John. Incidentally, we both discovered years later that we both had contingency plans to do other things and bail out if our original blind date didn't work out. But, it was love at first sight!

S: How did you ever get involved with Masters swimming?

K: In 1979, I decided to improve my physical condition by losing some weight. (I had also been a smoker during my military career.) So, I embarked upon my journey in the weight room at the old Fun & Fitness in Arlington, Va. Mind you, I had no intention of swimming at all. But over the weeks, I discovered that I enjoyed dropping into the pool after the weight room and one thing led to another. Each day, I'd add another length.

At that time, I ran into Coach John Flanagan. I didn't know who he was, but I saw him swimming the butterfly. I asked him if he would please show me how to swim fly. Little did I realize that eight years later, I'd still be unable to really do it! But anyway, I credit John with having guided me and steered me into the Masters program. He's responsible for getting me into the program, easing me in, and keeping me there.

S: When did you start competing as a Masters?

K: My first Masters meet was the short course nationals in Ft. Lauderdale in 1980. You know, the thing that impressed me was that I was "everything!" At my last competition at the Military Academy, we had team managers, trainers, rub-downers and equipment managers—it was the works! At Ft. Lauderdale, I was so impressed that I was able to do all these things and appear at the right block at the right time in the proper uniform. It was great!

S: What is your current training schedule?

K: For this time of year, I'm a little ahead of myself than I have been for the last three years. I work out five days a week from 6:30 to 8:00 a.m. with Coach Flanagan at the Tuckahoe Recreation Center. We swim between four and 5,000 yards a day. I'm also trying to do a minimum of three days a week of 45 minutes to one hour in the weight room. It makes quite a long week when you put it all together, but I'm feeling a lot better for it. I don't feel broken down because I'm a little smarter now. I listen to my body giving me signals and I adjust accordingly.

S: Between the 1981 SC Nationals at Irvine and now, you've set a total of 89 national records. If you can narrow it down, which were your proudest swims?

K: The two times I'm most proud of are the 50-meter free (1984 in Raleigh where I was the lead off on a relay), swimming against BirchDavidson, where Birch did a 29.30 and I did a 29.35. Matter of fact, we're both proud of those times. My other relay memory is from The Woodlands, Texas (LC 1987) where I was privileged to be teamed up with West Point's all time great swimmer, Ted Kanamine—our graduation dates are 40 years apart. Our relay (200-meter free, 200+) consisted of Kanamine 32, Woods 63, Lemmon 75, and Wolf 32. We took first place!

S: What has Masters meant to you? What is so unique about United States Masters Swimming as an organization?

K: I guess in retrospect, it's meant a lot to me. I got into Masters at a time when I did have a rather serious health problem and through Masters participation, I've managed to maintain what health I had. I'm certainly not the worse for wear, in fact I think I'm better off than I was when I started. With an outlook that I can prolong my quality of life as long as I want to.

Mary: I wanted to be sure to get down the fact that the Masters program answers many more situations than just swimming and being proficient at swimming. The people participating are from all walks of life, all age levels, men and women. At this age in life (50, 60, 70), unless you cultivate that variety in life (of younger people with different income levels), you will not fall into it easily. The Masters program is a cross section up, down, sideways and answers this "keeping into the mainstream of living," rather than where you become atrophied in the mind.

K: As Mary said, one of the greatest things about Masters, it's all ages unlike the other senior athletic programs with one competition per year among athletes the same age. At smaller local meets, you'll find yourself swimming against much younger people, combining the sexes. I think it's a decided advantage for the Masters program. In my case, where else could I go and be called Kelley by everyone, instead of Mr. Lemmon or General Lemmon? I'm Kelley and I'm on a first name basis with the rest of them, regardless of age or sex.

S: As a senior member of USMS, I think you're in a unique position to offer constructive criticisms of the program. Do you have any opinions on how to improve USMS?

K: At this time, you give me an opportunity to reflect on my eight seasons in Masters. I might observe that at least in the circle I travel, there's a great lack of knowledge and understanding of the Masters program and confusion with the programs referred to as "Senior Olympics" or Golden Olympics. I feel that the time has come for Masters to begin to work a bit on its identity and to separate itself from the other "senior programs." At the national level, I think Masters should possibly think more about ways and means of identifying the program a little better and promote it nationally. Or associating itself with a worthwhile cause from the standpoint of gaining identity—Masters swimming should have a cause. I think it would be helpful and healthy: promoting lane space, swimming time, and swimming pools for people and children around the country. More places to swim!

Another observation after eight years of competition is the accumulation of a considerable number of medals and ribbons. I often wonder what the situation would be with me if I were to have started in the Masters program at age 20 and continued through age 90. At times, I conclude that I would have had to buy an awful lot of shoes to provide enough shoe boxes to fill with all of my medals!

On the other hand, I think there must be an alternative developed to the medals and ribbons that will provide some kind of motivational vehicle to carry people through from ages 20 to 90. You can't do it with those medals. With this connection, I think there might be a possible partial solution in the type of program that is represented by USMS/The Finals All Star Team.

Here, you find a motivational vehicle to encourage the Masters swimmer to compete and participate in other events and strokes than the ones with which he's comfortable. There's also a basis for a program to provide a measurement for the Masters swimmer to progress over a long period of time in the broadest sense of participation in swimming. In other words, as opposed to going to meets repeatedly swimming the same events in one stroke, to venture out and attempt the other strokes and events. And have some measurable reward at the end of the year for what has been accomplished, plus a basis for providing objectives for the next season.

S: Do you have any training suggestions for assisting the senior Masters athlete?

K: Having been a senior my whole time in Masters, there are many good books on the market on swimming technique. But I must say, they are for the most part a bit advanced and technical for many of the senior Masters swimmers who have not had the advantage of the technical training as a child. I think what's needed is a book for the older Masters swimmer which would cover the technically advanced aspects of training for the older swimmer.

S: Do you have any comments on retirement? What are your goals as a senior athlete? What about 1988 New Year's resolutions?

K: I don't think that people should retire from life. When they retire, they should keep active and maintain interests and keep moving physically and mentally. Those that don't, have problems sooner than they otherwise would.

My goals as a senior athlete are to just keep doing what I'm doing. Each year that I've been in Masters, I've set goals that I'm capable of attaining—I've found that to be a very satisfactory arrangement. For the most part, they are goals that require me to extend myself during the year in preparation for the nationals. Most of the time, I feel a sense of achievement at the end of the season and I'm ready to turn around three times and start the next season.

I'm sorry to report that I don't plan to make any New Year's resolutions with regard to swimming. In the Masters swimming cycle, you've got to state your intentions (at least to yourself) earlier in the fall in order to prepare for the cycle and come up prepared for the SC Nationals in May. So, I don't as a practice wait till New Year's to decide what to do.

S: What about five year goals?

K: I can't answer the question as to how long I'm going to continue to do this, but I'm sure that the Masters program will accommodate me as long as I choose to participate. Which is one of the great things about the program. However, I'm going to be very noncommittal about the 80-84 age group. I reserve the right to stop at anytime!

 Editor's Note: We're certain that Kelley will continue to set an example for senior athletes across the United States and remain an inspiration for athletes of all ages. Bravo!

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