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by Bob Feinberg

August 8, 2019

The unattached member within the San Diego - Imperial LMSC survived a heart attack years ago because of his swimming

I might be the most unusual participant in the 2019 U.S. Masters Swimming Summer Nationals this year because I will be 1) the slowest swimmer in my age group (men’s 60-64); and 2) the happiest person at the entire swim meet.

If that doesn’t make sense, it’s because you don’t know the story behind how I got back into swimming. You see, if I hadn’t started swimming again, the heart attack I had 10 years ago would’ve killed me. I can honestly say that swimming saved my life.

So, how did this happen?

I was burned out as an age-group swimmer when I moved to Southern California from the East Coast in the mid-1960s. I took one look at the beautiful Pacific Ocean and surfing and said, “No more staring at a black line at the bottom of a pool for me! I’m done with swimming forever.”

I got my first surfboard (a Dewey Weber Performer) in 1968. Unfortunately, you don’t just ride surfboards; you also have to paddle them. So, I quickly found out the best way to gain the strength and stamina to carry and paddle those big heavy boards of that era is to swim. So slowly but surely, I found my way back to the pool.

I swam at the local beach club. I swam at the local YMCA. I swam by myself. I refused to swim on my high school team because it wouldn’t let me compete in my baggy surf trunks.

Fortunately for me, as I was going to college and working at a Y camp, I was offered a 15-cent-an-hour raise if I agreed to become a lifeguard. WOW! Now, I could swim and wear my (now red) surf trunks and get a huge raise. Remember: Minimum wage was $1.35 back then. I was in heaven! I was happily back in the pool. (Side note: I met a really cute girl that summer at the Y. We’ve been married 40 years this month.)

After taking many years off from swimming, I joined the nearby swim and tennis club and joined the Masters swim team in 2003, not to do swim meets but to compete in local ocean races and lifeguard competitions. During a Masters workout, we were doing our last set, which was 10 x 50s on one minute, butterfly down and freestyle back. I began to get this horrible pain in my chest.

Had I pulled a muscle during the butterfly? Was it just indigestion from the minestrone soup I ate the night before? I then looked at my arm and my body and realized I was turning gray (the same color as the figurative elephant that was sitting on my chest). The Masters coach insisted that I go to a doctor right away. The following morning, I had a stent put in my heart.

When my friends hear my story, they say, “Swimming almost killed you! You should never swim again!” But I tell them what my doctor said: “If you hadn’t had such a well-developed heart from swimming, the blockage would’ve killed you. So, swimming saved your life!”

When I found out that Summer Nationals were right here in my backyard in SoCal, I couldn’t think of a better way to honor 10-plus years of having recovered from the heart attack—even if I do come in last. After all, I can always put on my old red lifeguard trunks and go surfing afterwards. I can thank swimming for that.


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