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One Swimmer's Mesa Experience

by Tim Whitney

I’ve been asked quite a few times now how my trip went to Mesa, Ariz. In short, this was the single most inspirational event I have ever attended.

While there were over 1800 of the top qualifying Masters swimmers in the world attending this year’s events, the inspirational highlight for me was turning around and coming face to face with a guy that was my swimming idol growing up, 52-year-old Olympic gold medalist, Rowdy Gaines. He swam in the heat before me, setting the world record in the 50-yard freestyle with a time that would be the envy of most collegiate swimmers 30 years younger. It was pretty amazing when you think in 1992, this awesome athlete was near death, paralyzed from the neck down with nerve issues due to Guillain-Barre' syndrome, which can cause permanent paralysis in the muscles of the trunk, arms and face.

From there, I watched two men, each with an amputated leg, climb the blocks unassisted and compete at the highest level. It was simply amazing to see so many driven athletes over the age of 30 (and up to the age of 95!) still rocking in the pool. There were Olympic swimmers that had beaten serious illness and are now competing at the highest level, as well as Olympian Ed Moses showing us all how to swim breaststroke. It was one inspirational moment after another. One woman in her 80s arrived at the blocks in a wheelchair, swam a great race, and was helped out of the pool and wheeled away by her dedicated husband.

There were so many athletes competing there was a tent city set up all around the area and two pools were sectioned off to have side by side heats with 18 competitors at a time swimming. The event was three times larger than any I have ever attended and by far the smoothest run competition I have ever seen, complete with real time results via an iPhone app. WOW.

The trip was more than the reward I anticipated, and I am pleased I achieved all my goals for this year with five personal best times out of six events and I placed in the top 25 in my age group on four events. My performance pales however to the simply inspiring athletes in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s and the athletes overcoming amazing hardships. It truly shows that with dedication and a goal, the human body can achieve great things regardless of age, handicap, or hardship. The body can achieve, when the mind believes and one dedicates him or herself to the task at hand.

Surprisingly, the most moving moment of my trip came when I struck up a conversation with a fellow swimmer on the shuttle home from a long day of competition.

It turns out this gentleman happened to be a friend of one my best swimming friends from college, who died in a tragic accident some 20 years ago. It was a night that I was supposed to be with him and, due to work, could not go. This gentleman was with him that night, as he describes it, it was the worst night of his life. We spent much time talking about the past, about that night, our great mutual friend and life as it is today. It is amazing when that one-in-a-million conversation with a stranger ends up connecting on a personal level and you part ways as friends. The next day we met after the competition, laughed like old friends at the results, and swapped our contact information, promising to stay in touch and see each other next year.

Fantastic trip, great results, new friends, unbelievable memories, and a strong desire to improve for next year.

Tim Whitney swims for the Plano Wetcats in Texas and is the author of the novel, Thanksgiving at the Inn.

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