by Phillippe Diederich
Joan Souchek can breathe again. Eleven years after being diagnosed with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the 82-year old says she surprised her doctor with a clean bill of health. “I went to get tested in February and the tech looked at me and said, ‘who told you you had COPD?’” Souchek says. She says her doctor told her she had normal lungs.
Smoking is the leading cause of COPD, a long-term illness that usually gets worse with time. COPD is also known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, and is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. according to the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Souchek never smoked, but she grew up in a household where her father and brothers smoked. After her diagnosis, she says her doctor put her on Advair and an inhaler. That same year Souchek moved to Sun City, a 55 and over community in Huntley, Ill., where she also joined U.S. Masters Swimming.
“I started swimming, and gradually, I didn’t need inhalers all the time. I was breathing better, not coughing as much,” Souchek says.
Souchek always loved swimming. In the 1950’s she volunteered with the Red Cross where she taught swimming to children, but her career as a medical secretary and raising a family took precedent over swimming. It wasn’t until she retired and moved to Huntley that she was able to get back into the pool with any regularity.
At Sun City, Souchek joined the Stingrays, a close-knit swim team which gets together for practice at the community’s indoor Olympic size pool four times a week. Stingrays coach Jack Bolger emphasizes swimming for health and pays close attention to stroke technique and breathing. “It’s more like a club,” Souchek says, “there’s probably only ten of us who compete out of 35 members.”
Souchek earned her first ribbon in early 2001 and is looking forward to competing at the upcoming state meet in Dekalb this month. Her medals and ribbons hang in her bedroom. She also teaches swimming to other seniors at Sun City. But her attraction to swimming is not competition. “I don’t swim a whole lot. I’m not a fanatic,” Soucheck says. What she does believe in are the health benefits of swimming. She is constantly promoting swimming for health, encouraging young people not to smoke and to keep swimming. She says she has non-swimming friends whose breathing illnesses have gotten worse, while a couple of other friends who swim have seen a dramatic reduction in their reoccurrences of bronchitis.
Lap swimming, the breathing and blowing; Souchek says it has all helped her beat COPD. “If it weren’t for swimming, I’d be on oxygen,” she says, adding “The exercise of the lungs, that’s what did it.”