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A Life Aquatic

It’s not easy to transition back to civilian life after a long career in the military. But for U.S. Masters swimmer James Biles, swimming has become the perfect vehicle to help him adjust after 20 years as a Lieutenant Commander with the U.S. Navy.

Biles, 49, began swimming when he was twelve. Growing up in St. Croix, he traveled all over the Caribbean to compete. He earned a swimming scholarship to college and after graduation, joined the Navy to become a pilot like his father. Poor eyesight kept him away from the planes and he became a diver specializing in salvage and mine counter-measures instead. “It was great; I should have gone into diving from the start,” he says.

While living in Hawaii, Biles swam with a group of people and joined USMS while in Pearl Harbor. “It’s much easier swimming with a group of people. The support and spirit is great,” he says.

After getting a divorce, moving to a corporate job in Wisconsin, and having shoulder surgery, Biles gained weight and succumbed to negativity he encountered at the job. “One of the biggest things I saw in the corporate world was a negative attitude. The Navy was very positive, a can-do attitude,” Biles says.

He decided he had to get back into swimming and joined the Wisconsin Masters workout group at the Walter Schroeder Aquatic Center in Brown Deer, Wisconsin.

Schroeder Masters coach Jessica Connors says Biles is very dedicated and sets a good example for everyone in the team with his work ethic. “He’s more concerned with being a team player than his own individual achievements,” Connors says. She says Biles is the first person in the water when the pool opens at 5:30 a.m. and takes a long swim before he swims the coached workouts. He is also an active participant in Wisconsin meets.

In his teammates, Biles found the positive attitude he’d been missing since his Navy days. “Swimming has that positive can-do attitude. It helps keep you in a good mindset,” he says.

Biles normal workout includes swimming six days a week about four to six thousand yards a day, and swimming twice a day for two of those days, thus adding an extra two to three thousand yards to the workout.

All his hard work is paying off. Biles completed all five postal swims in 2009 and received a Survivor patch. He was also the first Wisconsin swimmer to have completed all five postal swims, and the first Wisconsin swimmer ever to complete a 10K in the pool. “I’m very competitive, always have been. Swimming has given me that competitiveness back,” Biles says.

Recently, Biles had to undergo shoulder surgery on his other shoulder and has had to lighten up on his training. “I have to remind him to not train so much. He has to take it slow,” says Connors. And Biles appreciates the advice and coaching from her. “I love Jess. She does a great job and I always volunteer to help,” he says. “In the Navy, I always had that one person I could talk to and confide with, someone who was a mentor. This was my commanding officer. I lost this mentorship when I retired, and did not find it again until I met Jessica. She has been an amazing friend and mentor, showing genuine care and maturity well beyond her 24 years. I think Masters swim coaches can provide this mentorship to anyone who is willing to listen and put aside 'status' and age barriers.”

The team and USMS have given Biles much of what he seeks in life beyond the pool. He’s able to spend his time with like-minded people. “It’s a great group with the same attitude towards life. To stay healthy and live life to the fullest.”

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