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by Elaine K Howley

April 29, 2013

Five Americans make the list of Top 12 Masters swimmers around the world.

In its April 2012 issue, Swimming World announced the Top 12 World Masters Swimmers of the Year. Now in its ninth year, the ranking aims to honor the top athletes in our sport from around the world.

Selection is conducted via a balloting process that takes into account each nominated swimmer’s accomplishments on the world Masters swimming stage in the previous year. The selection panel for 2012 was made up of Jeff Commings, SwimmingWorld.TV associate producer and prolific Masters swimmer; Verity Dobbie, Chair of the Great Britain Masters Committee; Rowdy Gaines, three-time Olympic Gold medalist and Masters record holder; Alberto Montini, Masters world record holder from Italy; Skip Thompson, former USMS coach of the year and legendary swim statistician; and Phil Whitten, USMS Board of Directors member and former editor-in-chief of Swimming World.

This venerable list of experts selected five U.S. Masters Swimming members to the list of Top 12 Masters swimmers around the world. American swimmers constitute more than 40 percent of the list, far surpassing any other country in this year’s ranking.

So who are these storied U.S. Masters Swimming members? You’ve no doubt heard their names before and but did you know about all this?


Rick Colella

Though 61-year-old Rick Colella—Bronze medalist in the 200 breaststroke at the 1976 Olympic Games—is no stranger to the top levels of competition in swimming, 2012 was the first time he’s been named to the list of elite Masters swimmers. “It is indeed an honor,” he says. “Several on the list have made it multiple times and I’m honored to be included this year along with these other perennially outstanding Masters swimmers.”

Colella has been swimming competitively for more than 50 years, and still finds it “fun and the best exercise as one ages.” Although winning races, breaking records, and being recognized by his peers as a top swimmer is nice, his real motivation for continuing in the sport is “my dedication to lifelong fitness, plus the community and camaraderie of my fellow Masters swimmers.” He says the range of abilities he encounters in a Masters workout, from beginners to Olympians, is part of the draw of Masters swimming. “Being a part of Masters and seeing novice adults improve and get so excited for best times is inspiring and fun.” 

The honor this year is especially sweet recognition for Colella’s long-course 400 IM from the 2012 Marriott Summer Nationals in Omaha last July, taking to the Olympic Trials pool just days after Missy Franklin, Michael Phelps, and other swimming stars had clinched their places on the U.S. Olympic team. Colella swam a world record time of 5:11.73 in the 400 IM, faster than he’d swum that event in 2008 (5:14) when he was 56 and 2010 (5:17) when he was 58. Colella attributes his faster time to the fact that his pool hired Becca Watson to be a Masters coach in 2009. “Under Becca, the morning lap swim of three years ago has become a full-fledged workout, and everyone is improving and having a great time. Becca’s coaching is the main reason I swam faster last year.”

Jim McConica

There are some swimmers who are just so amazingly strong, they can win everything, whether it’s a short sprint or a treacherous channel crossing. These are the swimmers who dominated in college, and continue to do so for the rest of their swimming careers. At 62 years old, Jim McConica of Ventura County Masters is one such swimmer; his name has the ring of legend about it in Masters and open water swimming circles. He was inducted into the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame in 2008, and continues to steamroll through the competition as he ages up. His entry on the list in 2012 marks the fourth year in a row he’s been honored as a top World Masters swimmer.

Another strong year began in December 2011 when McConica broke the 800 short course meters freestyle record with a time of 9:31.23. He subsequently broke three long course world records in 2012: the 200 back (2:33.94), the 400 free (4:40.00) and the 800 free (9:35.50).

Not content to stay in the pool, McConica also completed two, 12.4-mile crossings of the Anacapa Channel between Anacapa Island and the Southern California mainland. His first crossing on October 2, which he undertook with five of his teammates, lasted a mere 4 hours 38 minutes, a record for that waterway. (The record he broke had been set by an 18-year-old a few weeks prior.) The very next day, McConica swam the crossing again in 5 hours and 24 minutes, fast enough to enter the record books as the fifth fastest crossing of all time. Both swims were faster than his 2008 crossing which he completed in 5 hours 26 minutes when he was 57 years old. “I was most proud of our channel swimming successes,” he says.

Despite having a talent for swimming, McConica is quick to give credit for his success to the team he’s got at Ventura County Masters. “We have a dedicated group who train together most every morning. The ‘deep end’ group can range up to 15 swimmers. All are willing to do some longer, tougher sets.” And it’s not all work either; he says they have tons of fun, too, “which makes hard training easier. The environment is conducive to positive results. The team aspect can't be over emphasized enough.”

Bob Strand 

Smack in the middle of his age group at 67 and after having had surgery for prostate cancer, Bob Strand didn’t expect to make the list in 2012, but he says it’s a great honor to have his achievements and hard work recognized. “It came as a complete surprise to me, which made it even sweeter. I had not given the possibility one thought.” The Rose Bowl Masters swimmer who recently moved to Eagle, Idaho, says this ranking stands second only to his induction into the Masters Hall of Fame in 2008 as coolest honor. “To be voted in a group that includes Laura Val, Jim McConica, Karlyn Pipes, and Rick Colella is pretty ‘rare air’ and I am humbled to be a part of that group.

Strand earned his spot on the list by battling back from three months out of the water after surgery in May to compete in Omaha in July. By December, he was back to top form breaking world records including the 50, 100, and 200 short course meters breaststroke events.

What’s more, Strand was also selected as the cover model for the April issue of Swimming World, a thrill he bills as “once in a lifetime. It’s been great to share with my family and have so many swim friends contact me about it.” Still, Strand is not one to rest on his laurels. “I better have a good Nationals in Indianapolis to justify all the acknowledgment,” he says, eyeing the list again next year.


Karlyn Pipes

Like several others on this list, 51-year-old Karlyn Pipes has been here before. This is Pipes’ fifth appearance in the ranking, following on her listing in 2004 and from 2007 through 2009. And it makes sense that Pipes has spent so much time on the list: she’s set more FINA Masters World Records than any other swimmer ever, more than 200 at last count.

So with that in mind, you might begin to wonder what happened between 2009 and 2012 that kept Pipes from the list. It wasn’t a lack of athleticism or skill; rather she took a break from competitive swimming and channeled much of her energy into cycling and running, taking up triathlons with gusto. “After spending so many years in intense [swimming] competition, I’ve enjoyed coming into triathlon as a rookie. I ask stupid questions, and I call stuff the wrong thing, but I want to be naïve for as long as possible. I’m just having fun with it,” Pipes says. But the fact is, she’s winning races and where she once worried she would be passed by faster runners and bikers and lose an early lead, she’s actually staying out in front during her events.

She also found that diverting her focus from only swimming to cross training in biking in running has actually helped her swimming while reducing the volume of training she needs to do. “I didn’t stop training,” she says, “I just stopped racing for a while. After being in competitive swimming for 20 years, I kind of hit that point where I wanted to step off the blocks for a little bit.”

It would seem the break from pool swimming did her good. In 2012, she broke three short course meters world records in the 100 fly, 100 back, and 100 IM and two long course world records in the 100 back and the 200 IM. She wasn’t expecting to make the Top World Masters list, she says, as she didn’t break as many world records as she had hoped over the course of the year, but when all reckoning was complete, she’d done it. “It was a really pleasant surprise. I missed more records than I broke, but it turned out to be favorable.”

In addition to making the list of Top World Masters, Pipes has also been ranked as one of the Top 10 Masters Swimmers of all time by Swimming World and was inducted into the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame in 2007. An open water swimmer from the age of eight, Pipes currently lives in Hawaii and trains in the abundant sea around her home.

When she’s not swimming or training for her own endeavors, Pipes is helping others to improve their skills and enjoyment in the water. Via her swimming consultancy, Aquatic Edge, Pipes offers a variety of clinics, camps, and other instructional-based programs to swimmers of all ages and abilities. “Educate! That’s the secret to making people faster. Educate them!”

Laura Val

Laura Val is also no stranger to the top of the podium. A swimmer all her life and a Masters swimmer since 1984, the 61-year-old has set more than 400 individual USMS records over the course of her career. Six of those records—world records in this case—came in particularly spectacular fashion at a 2011 Masters meet at the Olympic Club in San Francisco where she swam the 1500 free and broke every short course meters record for her age group along the way: 50M, 100M, 200M, 400M, 800M, and the 1500M, which she completed in a dazzling 19:38.63. Breaking six world records in less than 20 minutes is also a record.

Nearly every time she swims a race, Val breaks a record. More often than not, she’s lowering her own previous world standard. And rather than being hyper-competitive or obsessed with her performances, Val is soft-spoken, forthcoming, and just plain excited about swimming and all the fun she’s having.

What’s more, she enjoys a full and balanced life. She works full-time as a registered nurse in a management role and swims 4,000 to 5,000 yards every morning. Rather than employing some esoteric or laser-focused training plan, Val is happy to swim whatever workout her coach posts.

The routine is helpful, but what really keeps her going is her family. “I have two daughters who live in the Las Vegas area and are Masters swimmers. One just had a baby three months ago, and the other is pregnant. They are the most important thing in my life, and I go visit as often as I can.” Val also notes proudly that her son-in-law recently broke a Masters world record, too.

2012 marks the eighth year in a row that Val has been named to the Swimming World list, and she says she’s been fortunate to have such a great run. “What is especially gratifying is that I have been able to accomplish this across three age groups rather than just during my first year in the age group, which is always less difficult. As you move deeper into the age group it obviously becomes harder.”

A note to women in the 60-64 age group: if you’d like to break a world record, you might want to consider becoming a breaststroker. Val holds every Masters world record in her 60-64 group, save for the 50, 100, and 200 breaststroke events. Because she keeps breaking her own records, making the Top 12 list every year has become a de facto goal for her. “If my goal time is a record and I make it, I get another record,” which adds to her credentials to get on the list the next year. “But really, the goal is to just keep doing this as long as we can and just stay healthy.”

Runners Up

American runners up in this year’s ranking include:

  • Dawn Heckman, 35, of Rose Bowl Masters
  • Betty Lorenzi, 85, of Florida Aquatic Combined Team
  • Jean Troy, 85, of Florida Maverick Masters
  • Diann Uustal, 66, of Maine Masters Swim Club
  • David Guthrie, 52, of Longhorn Aquatics
  • Graham Johnston, 81, of Masters of South Texas
  • Hugh Wilder, 65, of Santa Rosa Masters

USMS would like to congratulate all of these athletes for their accomplishments in the pool and on the world stage. Keep swimming strong!


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