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by Cheryl Gettelfinger

July 8, 2011

A lifetime of swimming

In Bob Patterson's words: "I was a late swimmer, learning to swim at age thirteen in 1952 at Camp Marymount, a Catholic Summer Camp just outside of Nashville, Tenn. Fortunately, I had a very patient instructor, a seminarian by the name of Pat Lynch, who worked with me for three weeks. I must have been the oldest non-swimmer he worked with, and for the longest period. At the end of three weeks, Father Pat, as he would later be known, had me swimming. In order to receive my Red Cross Certification, I had to swim about a hundred yards each of the freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke without stopping in lake water that I knew was deeper than I wanted to think about. After passing this test, I spent the next three years in Memphis, Tenn., where I was raised and educated. I was involved in recreational swimming at several of the local pools.

During my senior year at Christian Brothers High School in 1956, there was a notice posted for high school swimming team tryouts. Since I had retired from newspaper delivery and had time on my hands, I considered this school activity as a challenge. I was unaware that the notice was intended only for underclassmen. I inquired as to my chances of making the team with several of my classmates who had been on the swim team for several years. When my classmates became aware that I had a car to drive several of us to practice, they requested me to try out. The trials took place at the Memphis Downtown YMCA, as it was only one of several in Memphis with an indoor pool. The pool was twenty yards long, maybe six lanes wide without lines on the bottom and with lane line ropes installed only for meets. The chlorine fumes were so heavy that it made the air difficult to breathe and the water blurry! When the trials took place, I was the only senior competing for a spot on the team. Thank goodness the trials were limited to a distance of four lengths of the pool. On my freestyle attempt, I won out over all of the underclassmen swimming like Johnny Weismuller, Tarzan style, with my head out of the water looking straight ahead. Both the coach and I were amazed that I swam that well. I also took first place in the breaststroke and the backstroke. Since I had no experience with the fly, I opted out. When the coach, Brother Jared Joseph, who was also an academic teacher, found out I was a senior, he was inclined to drop me, but my classmates persuaded him to include me since I beat out all of the underclassmen and was one more swimmer who had the ability to carpool several swimmers to practice several days per week. Since pool time was shared at the YMCA with several other local high school teams, practice time was limited. Practices occurred on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for about an hour and a half, and Saturday afternoons for a little over two hours. During this era of swimming, aids were non-existent for us, and we were expected to swim in a highly toxic environment without the benefit of goggles, fins, kickboards, paddles, lane lines, or lines on the pool bottom. Any weight work was done after school in the high school gym on the days we did not swim. There were several football players on the swim team who were forbidden by the football coach to lift weights.

Experiences during the high school swimming season consisted of the coach‘s frustration with me for not swimming with my head in the water. My excuse was, “The water burned my eyes so bad I could not see where I was going,” as proved once in practice when I swam across two other lanes into oncoming swimmers. He was really upset, but not as much as the swimmers I tagged. After that, I was directed to train for distance swimming in a wall lane with a couple of other swimmers. Distance was, at that time for us, to be anything more than 100 yards. We would swim 200-yard repeats on an interval determined by the coach. There were no wall clocks. Coach kept the time with a stop watch. Since the coach was more concerned with the sprinters, our repeats often consisted of more than 200 yards!

My memorable accomplishment for the season consisted of a distance event, 500 yards, at an away meet in Wilson, Ark., a cotton farming center in the region. They had a fantastic facility for a school in a town with less than ten thousand population. It was Olympic size with spectator benches and no chlorine fumes. Aha, fresh air and clear water at last. At the event, I noticed some of the Wilson High School swimmers had goggles. I befriended one, and tried them while warming up. It was fantastic; I could see clearly, swimming with my head submerged. When I found out he was not swimming in the distance event, I asked if I could borrow his goggles for the event. He consented and I won the event in a best time of the year for our team. The Wilson coach attempted to have me disqualified for using equipment furnished by one of their swimmers, but the officials turned him down. My coach and I were amazed at my time.

After high school, I worked the next four years, 1956 – 1960, during the summer between semesters at college, as a lifeguard for a local country club, Chickasaw Country Club, in Memphis. During this time, The Memphis Athletic Club (MAC) organized an attempt to start an AAU Swim Team composed of swimmers and divers from the Memphis community. I noticed an article in the local newspaper for swimming tryouts and decided to show up. Since MAC did not have a pool at this time, tryouts and workouts were scheduled at one of the local outdoor pools, known as The Rainbow Pool. The deep end, with a diving tower, had an area that was twenty five meters wide by twenty five meters long, still without lane lines or lines on the pool bottom. A couple of my high school team members and a few other high school locals showed up for the trials. All of us qualified. Practice was scheduled daily at 7 a.m. Local competition took place on the weekends, usually Friday or Saturday night. Competition consisted of local country club teams, local colleges, and swimmers from the Millington, Tenn. Naval Air Base. The toughest competition was the Navy Base team, several of whom had excelled on their college teams.

The Memphis Athletic Club Swim Team was coached by a Hoosier, Ed Talley, who also coached at one of the Bloomington, Ind., high schools during the school year. During the next several years, I would learn swimming excellence from Ed Talley. I was taught how to do freestyle flip turns, butterfly with the dolphin kick and backstroke racing turns. During this swimming era, it was not uncommon to swim the breaststroke lengths underwater. Practices were much more intense from what I experienced in high school, with distances of 3,000 to 5,000 meters daily. After practice, I would drive to work at the country club pool, Chickasaw, for the rest of the day, opening at 10 a.m. and closing at 9 p.m. When not in the guard chair, I would teach young kids how to swim. Every evening before closing, I would swim a mile without stopping.

I lived in the water during the summers between college semesters. My notable swim during this time was at a long course event, 1500 meters, at Ole Miss University in Oxford Miss., in 1958. I found it a challenge since it was a fifty-meter pool and all of my practice time had been in a twenty-five meter pool. It was a long way between turns. It was also an exhausting swim since it took place outside in the middle of a hot August afternoon, with 90+ degrees and 90% humidity. But, I managed to win my event in record time for the southeast regional area.

After 1960, my swimming consisted of recreational swims at the various area lakes and the Tennessee River until locating in Indianapolis in 1979.

During the winter of 1979-1980, I looked for a facility to work out and found Jordan YMCA. Since it was a five minute drive from home, I joined. During that winter, I swam several evenings per week. This is when I met Mel Goldstein. He invited me to join him and several others for, if you can believe it, some casual workouts. It was not long until we had about six to eight swimmers showing up consistently several nights per week for organized workouts. The following year, 1981, Mel convinced about eight of us to travel to Morgantown, W.Va., to compete in a National YMCA Short Course Meet. All of us swam the maximum number of events permitted and placed fourth as a team. It was quite an accomplishment considering the small number of swimmers that we had. This was the beginning of Indiana Masters swimming, and competitive swimming for me, for the next thirty years.

For ten years I would work out at 5:15 a.m. five mornings per week and at 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings at the Jordan YMCA. During these ten years, the number of swimmers increased from a dozen to about fifty. Morning workouts were held at Jordan YMCA, Lawrence North High School, and at the IUPUI Natatorium. During the winter months, Master swimmers from the Indianapolis area would meet at the IUPUI Natatorium for 7 a.m. Saturday workouts for a minimum of 4,500 yards, then meeting afterwards for breakfast at Shapiro’s Deli. During the summer months, Saturday workouts were convened at the Jordan YMCA 50-meter outdoor pool with breakfast afterwards at the Sunshine Café. During this time, I competed with teammates periodically at many in-state meets, traveled to regional contests in Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky, national events in North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and also competed in an international event, the Pan Pacific Games hosted by Indiana in 1989.

During the Pan Pacific Games I was fortunate to have a swimmer from Budapest, Hungary stay at my home. Fortunately, language was not a barrier! He enjoyed my wife’s home-cooking while I was satisfied by some fine Hungarian wine.

While swimming, I have competed against the best in my age group: Mel Goldstein, Jerry Myers, George Quigley, Marty Mennen, Yoshi Oyakawa, Bill Mulliken, Frank McKinney, Lance Larson, David Costill, Birch Davidson, Manuel Sanguily, and others whose names I have forgotten. I have enjoyed the competition and learned from all of them. What a group!

In 1988, I was advised that the high school system in Westfield, Ind., where I reside, needed a swim coach for the middle school and high school teams. I applied for the position(s) and was hired. Nine swimmers, boys and girls, showed up for the high school team. Nineteen swimmers showed up for the middle school team. After the 1988-89 school season ended, I decided that Westfield needed a feeder system for its school swimming teams so I started a local USS Swim Club, The Westfield Wave. About thirty swimmers showed up for the club trials, all less than thirteen years of age. During the next four years, I coached both school teams during the winter and developed swimmers at the club level during the other months. During this time, my challenge to the swimmers I coached was, “Until you can beat me, you have not mastered swimming.” Many of my fellow Masters swimmers assisted in this endeavor, offering their time to demonstrate proper stroke techniques in their various disciplines and explaining what could be achieved if these young swimmers would commit to the sport of swimming. This time had its challenges, finding time to develop and manage my insurance business while developing young swimmers. Yet, this was probably the most rewarding time in my life, working with youngsters who showed the desire and effort to become competitive swimmers. Several of these swimmers ended up in area universities with a swimming scholarship!

In 1993, the challenge of balancing my business and coaching three swimming venues became too much. I had to make a choice. I ended up hiring several assistants, turned the club management over to the parents and returned to work full time in my insurance business. Future financial planning for retirement required more income than I could produce coaching swimming. But, I did not give up swimming.

Currently, I work out several mornings per week at the Carmel Indiana Rec Center at five a.m., with several committed swimmers who enjoy challenging each other. While I still compete, it is only one or two local competitions per year. I thoroughly enjoy the sport of swimming, the friends I have made through this sport, and the opportunities presented to assist others who have a desire to become better swimmers."

Robert (Bob) E. Patterson - One who has still to master swimming!


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