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by Jim Enyart

December 29, 2000

Getting better, not older!

One of the advantages of starting to swim later in life is that you get better, not older. Greensboro's Sally Newell personifies this adage better than most. Although this 60-year young athlete has been swimming since only 1991, she has already established herself as one of the nation's premier breaststrokers. Just having aged up, Sally is naturally looking forward to this year's competition.

Born in Montclair, N.J., and having resided in Delaware, Sally, her husband Sam, now retired, and four children moved to Greensboro 26 years ago. Sally started swimming (in addition to her jogging) in the summer of 1991 while undergoing chemotherapy after breast cancer surgery. Also swimming at the pool and looking for someone to swim with was Nancy Clark. Nancy, as well as her husband Frank (from the Greensboro Meet of the same name), were instrumental getting Sally hooked on swimming.

Just a few months later, in January 1992, encouraged by the Clarks, Sally participated in the Charlotte Meet where, among other events. Sally swam the backstroke using the classic double arm pull. Sally also recalls a friend saying that she should be DQ’d in the breaststroke event since she had only one. None-the-less, it was not too long before Sally found her best event to be the breaststroke.

Of course, discovering what you are good at is easy compared to becoming the best at it. Sally accepted the challenge by starting with a Total Immersion swim camp and then, being an early riser, began working out at the Greensboro Central Y in the morning with the kids instead of at night with the Masters. Sally joined the Raleigh Area Masters (RAM) in 1993 since the Y Masters members generally do not compete and RAM does. Competing in the 1993 Long Course Nationals in Minneapolis, Sally silvered in four events.

After several years at the Y, Sally switched to the Greensboro Swim Association (GSA) and then to the Phoenix team where the early morning tutelage of John McCormick elevated her out of her "comfort zone." Swim sessions at six in the mornings can be pure drudgery for even the heartiest of athletes. But with Sally around, practice became a different experience because her boundless enthusiasm overtakes her practice partners and coaches. "Having her around creates a fun atmosphere, and that is a must for a productive environment," said Coach McCormick. The results for Sally were significantly improved times and several first places at the 1995 short course nationals. Nineteen-ninety-six was another banner year for Sally as she contributed to two state relays that placed first nationally and the medley relay that set a new world record.

Last November at the Dixie Zone SCM in Anderson, S.C. Sally teamed with Dick Webber, John Kortheur and Jeanne Mitchell to set a new world short-course record in the 200-meter mixed medley relay. "The adrenaline was flowing, it was great," says Sally. "We think the record will stand for a while." To summarize Sally's 1997 accomplishments, while placing first at the nationals in the 55-59 age group breaststroke and being ranked second overall nationally at the 50, 100, and 200 distances, Sally established the N.C. records in these events.

For the last fifteen years she has been involved in her summer swim league's Swim For Cancer. Over the past two years Sally raised $10,000 and was honored by the American Cancer Society for her efforts. Sally also volunteers at Reach to Recovery, a program sponsored by the American Cancer Society. Women who have had breast surgery visit recently diagnosed women to provide very important and needed encouragement, reading material and a temporary prosthesis if they have had a mastectomy.

Sally Newell's in-the-water credentials are enough to make people take notice. Yet it is her outgoing personality that has been critical to her athletic and community service successes. "Having gone through breast surgery and chemotherapy," says Sally, "gives a person a different spin on what life is all about. When you have experienced a life-threatening situation like I have, you can look at the bright side of a rainy day. I don't let those little irritations get to me anymore." It has been seven years since her surgery, but it is never far from her mind as it is the first thing she thinks of when she is not feeling quite right.

Sally loves the sport, but more importantly, she has a passion for competition—not so much against her counterparts, but against herself, "I just want to keep getting better, that is what motivates me," Sally explains. "But it is also the camaraderie with the other swimmers. We all have that common link of being committed to competing." Accordingly, Sally returned to GSA last fall and Coach Brett Drinkard, a breaststroker from Florida State. Under Coach Drinkard's guidance, Sally is refining her technique and working out four times a week, swimming 5,000 yards a day. Soon she will go five days a week in preparation for this year's nationals.

To paraphrase a Tina Turner song title, Sally Newell's swimming career might be called "What's age have to do with it?"

from Across the Lanes, March, 1998