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by Daniel Paulling

April 27, 2019

The North Carolina Masters Swimming member spent nearly 50 years away from swimming before competing at Spring Nats

North Carolina Masters Swimming member David Purser admits he wasn’t studious during his only year at what was then called East Carolina College. His only A came in water safety, a grade perhaps helped by his being a swimmer while growing up in Charlotte, N.C.

But Purser’s background in swimming and the coursework from his water safety class helped him save the lives of a few of his fellow infantrymen during the Vietnam War following his year in college at what is now called East Carolina University.

“I guess it came in handy,” says Purser, who swam the 500 freestyle and 100 individual medley on Friday at the 2019 U.S. Masters Swimming Spring National Championship in Mesa, Ariz.

His platoon was supposed to cross a river about 60 feet wide and meet up with another unit. His platoon deemed the crossing passable after scouting the river, but a rainstorm came and caused the water to become deeper and the current to get faster. Because the crossing came before dawn, the soldiers couldn’t see how much the conditions had changed before they started.

“Have you heard anybody drown?” says Purser, who had been assigned to stay on shore to keep watch with his machine gun. “It’s scary. I had never heard it before until then. And I heard a lot of it. I went in the water and just started grabbing and grabbing, two or three people, pulling them out. The ability to swim, I suppose anybody could’ve done what I did.

“From then on, they would put me downstream [from where his fellow infantrymen were crossing], so if somebody got loose, they put me down there to get them.”

Purser’s platoon lost its leader, something that still causes Purser to become emotional when discussing it. He plans to talk with his platoon leader’s family in the coming months.

Purser returned home from Vietnam; began his career as a hardwood flooring contractor with his company, Purser Wood Floors; got married; and had children. He didn’t swim, but when he read about his youth coach, Franke Bell, being inducted into the International Swim Coaches Hall of Fame in August 2015, he decided he was going to attend and start swimming again.

“I said, ‘I’m going to get back to swimming because when I go down there in late August, I’m going to be around people maybe I swam against, but I’ll certainly be around other Franke swimmers,’” Purser says. “I didn’t want to go down there and everybody say, ‘Well, are you still swimming,’ expecting a yes and they hear no.”

He competed at the 43rd Annual Sunbelt Meet in January 2017 at the age of 68, his first meet since being 18. He felt some nerves, forgetting to wear his goggles in his first event and false-starting in another. But he won the 100 IM, one of his favorite events as a youth swimmer.

His performance persuaded him to keep swimming.

“Everything came back,” Purser says. “I was just jazzed. I wasn’t sure I would stick with it, to be honest, because you know how much work it is, but now I won’t miss a practice.”

Records Broken on Friday

Andrew Appleby, New Albany Aquatics: men's 18-24 100 IM (48.96)
Carlo Travaini, Mission Viejo Nadadores: men's 55-59 100 IM (55.09)
Rick Colella, Puget Sound Masters: men's 65-69 100 IM (57.37)
Margaret Toppel, Oregon Masters: women's 70-74 100 freestyle (1:06.03)
Matt Grevers, Illinois Masters: men's 34-39 50 backstroke (21.37)
Richard Burns, Tamalpais Aquatic Masters: men's 75-59 50 backstroke (30.90)
Daniela Barnea, Stanford Masters: women's 75-79 200 butterfly (3:36.66)
Arizona Masters Swim Club Inc: mixed 85+ freestyle relay (3:18.65)

Note: All records are subject to change pending verification.


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  • National Championships
  • USMS Nationals