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by Karen Shideler

November 22, 2005

"Start slowly and be consistent"

Betty Christian started swimming when she was six, because her mother swam. At 80, she swims because she loves it. "It's very good for you," she said. "It keeps me up to speed." Keeping up to speed includes swimming and diving competitively, holding several records for her age group and having a form worthy of envy by someone a quarter her age.

 It includes keeping up with her daughter, without huffing and puffing, when they go hiking in Colorado. It includes giving sky-gliding a try while she was in New Zealand recently for the World Masters Championships, where she won four gold and three silver medals, and traveling to Toronto and Casablanca, among other places, for competition.

 All this because her mother swam.

 Christian's mother took swimming lessons at the University of Toronto, an unusual move for a woman in those days, when women's bathing suits were covered with flounces. Her teachers told her to buy a man's suit—the one-piece, long wool version was popular then.

 When she was a girl in Winnepeg, Manitoba, Christian started lessons. Her first teacher was an English woman, and her first stroke was the breaststroke, still her best stroke.

 She learned to dive when she was about 10 and started diving competitively about two years later. Not long after, she won second place in junior diving at the Canadian championships.

 Christian limited herself to diving at the University of Manutoba, until the coach told her she couldn't travel with the team unless she swam too. "So all right, I swam, too," she said.

 That's about the same time Canada's swimming coach for the Olympics asked her to practice with him. But World War II forced the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Games, "and there was my two chances, gone." She might not have made the team, she says, but the coach was willing to give her a shot.

 Then she put her swimming on hold, for about 40 years.

 Oh, she still swam while a graduate student at Iowa State University, where she met her husband, Bob. And she still swam with their four children, after the family moved to Wichita when Bob became a chemistry professor at Wichita State University. He died in 1993.

 But she put her competitive side on hold until 1980, when she found out about U.S. Masters swimming, in which adults compete with others their age.

 After her first meet, Christian found herself thinking, "Gee, this is kind of fun. It makes you work a little harder than you would if you're just lazing around."

 A year or two latter, she discovered that Masters swimming had diving competition, too. Though she hadn't been on a board in 40 years, "It's kind of like bicycle riding: You never really forget."

 Christian started participating in the every-other-year international competition because it gave her a chance to travel and renew acquaintances with other Masters swimmers. There are lots of other women in the 80-84-year-old swimming group, but only a few still diving. In fact, in New Zealand, there were only three, and the one who took third had taken up diving at the age of 72, Christian said.

 The trip to New Zealand also gave her the chance to try sky-gliding, which is like parasailing but done on land, by walking off the edge of a mountain.

 "It was lovely," said Christian, who also has tried sky-diving and likes sky-gliding better.

 At home Christian swims three times a week at the Heskett Center, at Wichita State University, and dives twice a week.

 The unfortunate thing is, I don't have a coach," she says. "It's really hard to coach yourself."

 Christian would recommend swimming to anyone interested in fitness. "The thing about swimming is, it gets you off your feet. And it actually uses an awful lot of muscles," she says.

The key to success is to start slowly and be consistent. In Christian's case, that means saying "no" when a friend wants her to do something else on a swimming day.

 Christian also says a swimmer can't "just laze up and down the pool" and expect to benefit. She intersperses sprints with slower laps in freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly.

 But it's not all work. "If I didn't like it," she says, "I wouldn't do it."

  The Wichita Eagle & Beacon Publishing Co. (Copyright 2002); reprinted with permission from Karen Shideler -