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A Swimmer's High After a Frightening Low

Swimming kept him fit enough to survive heart attack

Laura Jones | December 31, 2008

Eat. Swim. Sleep. Repeat. You’ll find this slogan on a sticker that Ray Venture has placed on his car. For him, it is more than a slogan though, it is his way of life. And he only started swimming four years ago at age 59, after serious heart surgery. Passionate and fun to talk to, Venture wants to inspire the world to take up Masters swimming.

In 2005, Ray Venture, 62 and a very proud member of Gold Coast Masters, had quintuple bypass surgery. In 2007, he learned to swim, and when I interviewed Venture he had just gotten back from YMCA Masters Nationals.

Venture wants everyone to know that you do not have to turn into a blob after heart surgery. “Because I worked out, I didn’t have any symptoms until two arteries were 98% blocked. My doctor said he had never seen so many collateral vessels.” Venture had what is called "beating heart" bypass surgery, and his doctors used a mammary artery from his chest because it can withstand the greater pressure an athlete would put on it. His heart problems stem from poor genetic luck.

He is more proud of surviving those first few months in the pool than the heart surgery two years earlier. “The first time I swam I thought I would throw up, and I got vertigo from the flipturns. I was a backstroking cockroach. It’s the hardest sport I’ve ever done, and I’ve run marathons and played handball. I come from a military school background, too. “There is a t-shirt that says ‘Swimming is a sport. Everything else is a game.’ Boy is that right,” Venture says. “You have to be really physically fit to even swim a 50.”

Venture, an independent consultant for non-profits, likes to study the sport. “I’m not the fastest guy, but I am addicted to it. This swimming thing is the best exercise ever. I don’t have natural technique, so it is hard for me as someone who is used to sports where power is everything. I love to study underwater videos so I can try and catch up.”

He was a runner before his surgery and took up running again within three weeks. But he ultimately injured his Achilles tendon. Thanks to Jeannie Mitchell, 64 and formerly with Gold Coast Masters, he tried the pool. “One day [in 2007] she just threw some goggles at me and said I ought to try it.” Mitchell took him to a Senior Games meet and then he was really hooked. Venture competed in his first meet later that same year. He quickly built up to doing all the events except for breaststroke and the 1650. Meets keep him hopping. A year ago Venture learned the butterfly stroke and now swims the 200 fly. “I like being challenged. The 200 fly in the water is like a marathon for me.”

“Masters swimmers are the nicest people I have ever met in the world. I’ve been around a lot of athletic things in my life, and I’ve never seen people so nice in a sport so hard.” Venture credits everyone he has ever talked to in the swimming world for helping him get better and consequently says: “I’ll do anything I can to help the sport and USMS except get a tattoo! The dues we pay are just peanuts compared to what we get in return [from USMS]”

A lot of Masters swimmers, like many adults in the general population, face health issues and challenges and keep swimming. Venture is an example of a group that deserves celebrating. “Everyone is worried I am going to drop dead in the water. But I’m probably in better shape now than people who haven’t been checked out. I think swimmers are the healthiest people on the planet. If someone does have a heart problem, swimming is the best thing you can do to stay in shape. The doctor who operated on me said the best thing I can do is keep working out.”

“If I can do it, anyone can do it. I never swam before in my life. This is a sport where you learn something every day. It’s a process. You can apply what you learn in swimming to life.”

Venture is the type who likes to give back, as are many Masters swimmers. He is grateful for what USMS has done for him, so he wants to help recruit more members. He is grateful for what heart surgery has done for him, so he participates in American Heart Association events whenever possible. For more on the American Heart Association, visit heart.org.

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About the Author—Laura Jones

Laura S. Jones, a lawyer by training, has written about sports, health, and science for a variety of publications since 2001. She's also the author of a short story collection, "Breaking and Entering," published in 2011. Jones is an avid, although not speedy, open water swimmer and particularly enjoys 5K and 10K ocean swims with her much faster husband, Rob. She'll occasionally humble herself with a 400IM or 500 free in a pool meet, and a triathlon or two.

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