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by James Thornton

January 28, 2001

Relay redemption!

James Thornton writes: "Standing in a chilly late-summer drizzle, I teeter atop a tilted starting block at the United States Masters Swimming National Championships. My arms feel swollen as sausages from lactic acid, and my head pounds from tension, lack of food, and self-disgust. An hour ago, I dove off identical blocks, inaugurating a millisecond too soon the butterfly leg of our 200-meter medley relay. A judge caught the blunder and disqualified us all.

Immediately after my bungle, teammate Dale Sirinek, a genial 55-year-old Vietnam veteran-turned-florist, threatened to pummel me. My other relay teammates, Andre Weisbrod, a 51-year-old mutual fund manager, and Dick Lynn, a 47-year-old PBS television producer, seemed perfectly willing to let the pummeling proceed. "Just don't hit him anywhere that'll effect his freestyle," suggested Andre, ever the pragmatist.

"But there's no such place on my body," I managed to argue. "I'm that weak!"

Truth be known, it's doubtful a thrashing could have made me feel too much. Having let my friends down once, I'm now prepared to explode my very heart out for the glory of the 201-year-old beast that is our relay team collectively quantified.

Oh, I pray for redemption!

Now, 50 meters across the pool, Andre dives into the cold waters and sprint-crawls in my direction. This freestyle relay is today's final event. The meet is hours behind schedule, underwater lights have been switched on in every other lane. By fluke of seed time, we've drawn an unlit lane, making it easier to hear Andre's advance than actually see it. I wonder if, when my turn comes, I'll be able to find my way. For the hundredth time today, I think: How I love swimming! How I hate swimming meets!

In 34 years of racing, this is by far the most important meet I've ever qualified for, the only one with "national" in its title. The last time I raced in a 50-meter "long-course" pool I was 18, whippet thin, and relatively hairless. It's now 30 years, 25 pounds, and a camel's hair coat of chest hair later, and, like my teammates, I'm stuffed into a Speedo Aquablade—a hydrophobic full-bodied garment we've nicknamed "the girlie suit." We resemble the world's strangest Victoria Secret models.

Suit technology notwithstanding, we're not exactly favorites to place in the top 10. A record 1,380 swimmers from 46 states and seven foreign nations have assembled here in Baltimore to compete in age-adjusted heats. The youngest is 20, the oldest 91. In between are a dozen former Olympians, and hundreds of ex-college stars.

Many of our relay rivals belong to Goliath-sized Masters teams—Virginia Masters, for example, has brought 107 swimmers, Maryland Masters has 99 representatives, and so on. With so much depth, these armies of frogmen can field A, B, even C relays in a spectrum of age groups.

Our talent pool taps into a few small corners of suburban Pittsburgh. Our roster numbers precisely five guys: the four of us relay members, plus a 70-year-old individual competitor and heart transplant patient named Ronald Gainsford. We work out three days a week, when we can make it, at the YMCA in Sewickley, Pa. I'm our team's "player coach," who writes and swims the workouts. Strike two.

But in terms of this relay, we do have one advantage: youth. A year ago, Dale, Dick, Andre, and I would have been among the oldest swimmers in the 160-199 year bracket. This year, though, we've "aged up" and now find ourselves the youngest team in the 200-239 bracket. In Masters swimming, growing older is always cause for celebration. If you live long enough, like 91-year-old Tex Robertson from Team Texas, you can win gold just by finishing a race. As a popular T-shirt puts it: "Masters Swimming—the last one alive wins."

I'm ruminating about how great I might become as a centenarian when my semi-centenarian teammate Andre hits the wall. Making absolutely sure not to false-start, I hurl my still youngish body into the drink.

My earliest memories of propelling my body through water date back to toddlerhood when my identical twin brother and I used to regularly fall into a pool owned by a family friend. Neither John nor I technically knew how to swim, but we did learn how to hold our breaths long enough for our mother to arrive in an explosion of chlorine-scented bubbles to yank us back to the surface world. At age seven, we learned to swim for real in a small basement pool at the Sewickley YMCA. The two of us quickly became the fastest pollywogs in the pool, then continued to work our way up through the hierarchy of guppies, minnows, fish, flying fish, and sharks. Once we'd mastered all the competitive strokes, we were ready for the final step in the Darwinian evolution of aquaboys. We joined the kids swim team and became Sewickley Sea Dragons.

This proud affiliation lasted through ninth grade, at which point I jumped ship to a Pittsburgh Amateur Athletic Union team. Throughout high school, I was a decent though hardly outstanding competitor—just good enough to get semi-recruited by the University of Michigan, or more accurately, just good enough to get treated to dinner at a cheap Ann Arbor smorgasbord by an assistant swimming coach who made absolutely no mention of scholarship money. I swam my freshman year, the high point being a meet where I was in the same water as Mark Spitz. I retired (was retired would again probably be more accurate) at the end of the season. For the rest of my time at Michigan, I semi-regularly worked out alone in the intramural pool.

As it so happened, these were the same years that Masters sports officially got off the ground. After decades of resistance from the AAU (the prevailing attitude had been that people should stop competing as they get older, lest they embarrass themselves and the rest of us,) organized teams and tournaments were starting to sprout up around the country. In May 1970, 49 swimmers met in Amarillo, Texas, and competed in the 25+, 35+, and 45+ age groups in the short-course "Masters Nationals," the first ever such major competition for aging athletes. Five years later, in 1975, the number of participants had grown to more than 75.

Not that I had the slightest awareness of these events—or much of anything else in 1975. Armed with my total lack of marketable skills and naturally bleak temperament, I'd hit the job market at the peak of recession and began to suffer what was called in the pre-Prozac era a nervous breakdown.

As my "suicidal ideation" became increasingly detailed, a psychiatrist tried to take the edge off via a cornucopia of medications. He started with tranquilizers in the diazepam family, which only enhanced the depressant effects of the bourbon I was prescribing for myself. He moved next to the major tranquilizers usually reserved for psychotic patients. By mixing and matching items from my burgeoning home apothecary and wet bar, I managed to increase my nightly "rest" to four hours of twitching oblivion.

When John came for a visit that Thanksgiving, it finally dawned on me from his horrified expression what a zombie I'd become. "What are you doing to yourself?" he asked me, frantic. "You can't even open your eyes right."

A week later, I quit Mellaril cold turkey, drank three fingers of Wild Turkey, grabbed goggles and a faded Speedo, and showed up at the kids' swimming practice at the Sewickley Y, hardly yet a hotbed of the nascent Masters swimming movement.

I told the coach about my former status as a Sea Dragon, and abbreviated career swimming for Michigan. I alluded to some personal difficulties that I hoped hard exercise might help. The coach, a great guy named Bill McMasters, could surely smell my drunkenness, but he let it slide. "Go ahead and jump in," he said, motioning to a lane crowded with 12- to 14-year-olds.

That was the last practice I've ever attended liquored up. Over the next year, I swam as hard as I possibly could, five times a week, one-and-a-half hours per practice. In the process, I learned that exhausting physical exercise was, for me, a more potent bludgeoning agent for misery than any medicine or species of spirits. I even began to fall to sleep at night without first imaging a gun applied to my temple like a compress. I made friends with my fellow teammates, the oldest of which were in high school, the youngest in kindergarten. It barely rankled that they regarded this 23-year-old loser in their midst as a kind of aquatic Boo Radley—addled but well-meaning, less scary when you get to know him.

A week before the first dual meet of the season, Bill McMasters held an intramural lollipop competition in which everyone on the team, me included, could race in different events. Bill put me in with the 17- and 18-year-olds. I ended up winning seven Tootsie Pops, which I hung around my neck Mark Spitz-style. One of my competitors retaliated by pouring itching powder into my Speedo before the next practice. I remember being simultaneously amused and pissed; I remember as well noticing that for the first time in a year, my emotions were becoming almost human.

Somehow, I was finding my way back. I don't mean to overstate swimming's role in my deliverance, but I have no doubt swimming figured as prominently as any other therapeutic element, from my eventual gainful employment to more effective psychotropic drugs like amitriptyline and later the SSRIs. Eventually, I got hired as a lifeguard in Georgia, then was invited by a pitying aunt to work as a shipping boy at her hydraulics distributorship in Utah. When she discovered the "O-rings" I was buying with company petty cash were actually "onion rings" for my lunch, she fired me for embezzlement. I moved to Florida and taught fifth grade for two years. When the school failed to renew my contract, I attended graduate school in Iowa, became a freelance writer, and moved to Minnesota the same year the "Skyway Y" opened a brand new pool in downtown St. Paul.

A week after moving to St. Paul, I showed up poolside, figuring I'd try to find the least crowded time to swim laps on my own. To my amazement, I found the pool filled with a dozen plus swimmers doing ensemble intervals—all of them in their 30s and 40s.

The coach, a recently graduated college star and all-round great guy named Tom Emison, saw me staring agape and invited me to hop in with the team. He didn't have to ask twice. I was a lifelong convert to Masters swimming before the night was over.

For the next eleven years, through the birth of my two sons and the fits and starts of a career that often seemed on the fast track to debtor's prison, I steadfastly swam three or four practices a week. To outside observers, a 3,600-yard workout may seem like pointless plodding back and forth between the lap lines—a sign of vanity, perhaps, an obsession with the corporal over the cerebral. But to me, swimming became as much a sacrament as meditation or the recitation of Hail Marys.

The competitive highlight of those years occurred one bitter January day when our lowly team upset our various twin-city rivals in what the latter called, with no little hubris, the "Minneapolis vs. the World" Masters meet. Particularly gratifying was when I bested my age-group nemesis, a Minneapolitan sun god named Larry. Early in the meet, Larry, whose muscles were as cut as a studio wrestler's, edged me out in the 50 free. But later, in the 100, I experienced my first greedy taste of true glory.

By 1995, those so inclined could find a nearby Masters team to join almost anywhere in the country. That year, my wife and I decided for family and climatic reasons to leave Minnesota and move back to my ancestral stomping grounds in Sewickley, Pa. The first thing I did after the moving van departed was walk triumphantly the two blocks over to the Sewickley Y and enlist for my third tour of duty with the Sea Dragons.

My first practice with the Sewickley Masters team took place on a Monday night in September. A dozen male and female swimmers showed up, ranging from a 20-year-old college coed to a 61-year-old computer programmer. One middle-aged guy in the fast lane immediately caught my competitive eye. He introduced himself as Andre, and he was not only very fast but also very funny in his repartee between sets. I remember thinking at the time that as soon as I established that I was a little faster and a little funnier, we could become good friends.

Over the next few months, we ended up splitting the difference. I conceded Andre was better than me in backstroke, breaststroke, and juvenile humor. He graciously conceded I was better in butterfly, freestyle, and sophomoric humor. When I learned that he was also using Masters swimming to successfully stave off heart-valve surgery, the nucleus of our future swim team was set.

In time, the Sea Dragon's paid "deck coach" was taking ever-more frequent dinner breaks mid-practice, and I covered for him, eventually taking over his coaching duties entirely. In this new role, I began noticing in January that an overweight fellow wearing oversized black boxer trunks had begun showing up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during our 6:30-7:30 practice times. Rather than joining us in the three lanes reserved for our team, however, he stayed on the other side of the pool near the lifeguard stand. Whenever we'd do sets of 100-yard swims, he'd swim 50s or 25s. He never wore goggles, and when Andre and I started accosting him after practice to join the team, his eyes were always red from chlorine.

"After 15 years of running my family's business, I had gotten so out of shape I was embarrassed to swim with you guys," Dale admitted after steady exhortations finally convinced him to buy a Speedo and goggles and officially join the team. "The mind doesn’t age—it remembers how good you used to be. But the body forgets."

One episode from Dale's rookie season will forever define him as a mensch in my mind. Though he would eventually bring his weight down from nearly 220 to the upper 180s, he was still on the decidedly pudgy side when he announced over apres-swim beers that he'd once been a springboard diver. "In fact," he said, "I was the only one at this Y who could do a double back flip in the old pool."

I remembered the tiny "old pool" well since it was where, at age seven, I learned how to swim. I also remembered its diving board—an incredibly stiff plank suspended no more than one and a half feet above the water's surface. The idea that anyone could do a double back flip off this was preposterous.

After our next practice, I joked, "Okay, Dale, let's see that double back flip. You can even use the new springboard—it oughta be a piece of cake." I didn't even feel guilty for potentially manslaughterous goading because I was 100 percent sure Dale would come up with some excuse. What he did instead shocked me.

"All right," he said.

His shoulders still tinted blue from an anaerobic set of 50s, Dale pirouetted on the end of the one-meter board, bounced once, then hurled his tucked bulk into a backwards-spinning blur. By the time he smashed into the water, a 50-year-old guy had executed a 1 and 5/6ths back flip.

"I need practice," he said. "That's the first time I've been on a board in 25 years."

I knew at this moment our relay had its third member.

Ironically, the final puzzle piece would prove to be another Minnesota expatriate. I was talking long distance to an old friend who worked at KTCA, the Twin Cities PBS affiliate, and he asked me if I knew a producer named Dick Lynn.

Dick, he said, was a Masters swimmer who was in the process of moving to Pittsburgh following a bitter custody battle. Unfortunately, our paths had failed to cross in Minnesota, but later that spring, at the Allegheny Mountain YMCA regional meet, we finally met. Dick was swimming for a Pittsburgh city team, which, he told me, sported no shortage of hardcore obsessives. "My first practice," he told me, laughing lowly to prevent being overheard, "I jumped in the fast lane and this one woman tried to start a fist fight with me."

If there's one thing to be said about my own coaching style, it's the total absence of the Bobby Knight motivational style. In the past, I've worried about being too coddling to the swimmers, too concerned about making practice fun. Dale, for example, frequently describes my approach as "motherly" and has been known to make occasional lactation jokes at my expense.

To this, I counter: whatever works. Spying an opportunity, I gave Dick a couple free passes and invited him to try working out with our team. After only three practices, he officially jumped ship and joined us even though this meant an hour of extra commuting time. "When you like the people you're swimming with," Dick says today, "it takes away the 'chore' of swimming laps and adds a lot of fun."

With our relay team thus finally assembled, the four of us launched on a two-prong strategy we hoped would set us on a collision course with glory: training and aging. Four years later, having practiced endless relay starts, chronological ripening finally brought us to the collective two century mark. The first national meet where we could take advantage of this fact was the National Championships in Baltimore. And so it was that on an unseasonably cold morning in August, we all took off time from work, convened at Dick's house in Squirrel Hill, and made the five-hour pilgrimage in his station wagon towards our dubious destiny.

At this point, I ask you to hum a few bars of the "Rocky" anthem in a dirge-like key, and pose to yourself the same question each of us was pondering: What in God's name are we getting ourselves into?

The aquatic complex at the University of Maryland Baltimore County swarms with a thousand plus swimmers and their fans. Adjacent to the impossibly long outdoor pool, a makeshift tent city has arisen, providing shelter from the rain for dozens of teams, each of which has staked out its own Balkan of soggy turf. Many of the swimmers, both young and old, sport colorful warm up suits emblazoned with team acronyms like GOLD and GERM. Some have taken their allegiance a step further and tattooed upon lithe and limber bodies an assortment of talismanic beasts: shoulder sharks, for instance, or frolicking dolphins that seem to leap forever around pierced navels.

Our team's less than prime real estate is bordered by a cyclone fence. I plop down my own equipment bag—a Mexican bolsa that lends me a bag lady appearance I hope will induce false confidence in my competitors. My first individual event of the meet is the 200-meter freestyle, and I'm nervously trying to plot a strategy that will maximize speed while minimizing pain.

"Hey, guy!" says a voice from the milling throng.

I look over to see a thirty-ish fellow who seems marginally familiar.

"It's me," he says. "Tom Emison."

"Tom! You've shaved your mustache. And gotten old!"

For the next 15 minutes, we catch up on mutual swimming friends from Minnesota. "Hey, did Larry make it to this meet?" I ask, both hoping and dreading that my rivalry with the Minnesota Tarzan might be renewed.

Tom shakes his head sadly. "Larry had a massive stroke last week," he says. "He's in intensive care, and doctors don't know yet if he's going to make it."

Stunned, I'm still trying to assimilate this as officials announce the 200 free. When the starter's horn blasts, I dive into the pool, taking the first 100 meters out way too fast. The last 25 meters are agonizing, my arms now tungsten oars, my legs and torso on the verge of a coordinated cramping of every micro-muscle they contain.

I abandon all hope for a medal—a concept evidently shared by many of here today. In the shower after the 200, I'm trying to warm up and detoxify my lactate levels when I overhear two 50-ish guys discussing how truly hard it's become to place this year. "In past years," says the first guy, "there weren't nearly as many good swimmers at the long course meet."

"Yeah," replied his colleague, "I guess a bunch of people are having their identity crises."

"Well, I hope they get it over with so next year will be good for us again."

An hour later, when the results are finally posted, I'm surprised to find I've clocked a respectable 2:17.7, which translates to 2:00.48 for 200 yards, only 4 seconds off my high school best. Even more amazing, I discover I've actually won a ninth place medal in the 45-49 age group. In my euphoria, I decide to spin-doctor the results to give myself even more cause for celebration. It's hard to spin-doctor the winner, world-record-holder Jack Groselle, who's thrashed me by 11 seconds. Still, Jack's only 46—a mere youngster of an ubermensch. In fact, reading down the complete list of the top 10 finishers, I note all of them are younger than my 48 years. I may have come in ninth, but by god, I was the fastest 48-year-old in the pool!

Alas, if only I'd stopped spinning at this point, my megalomania could have sustained itself for days. Instead, I sidestep over to the results for the 50-54 men whose senior ranks I'll join in only two short years. How, I wondered, would 2:17.7 stand up against these presumably diminished competitors?

Gold here went to a 50-year-old named Jim McConica, who slashed the world age group record by five seconds. McConica's time of 2:02.5 (former high school swimmers take note: this translates to 1:47.18 for 200 yards) beat my time by 15 seconds. McConica missed beating everyone, regardless of age, by only 1/10th of a second. And his times in the 400 meter and 1500 meter swims, I later learned, were indeed the fastest at the meet. So much for the putative advantage 19-year-olds hold over men turned 50.

A jumble of mixed emotions, I return to our team's plot of turf, my ninth place medal dangling around my neck. As thrilled as I am to have placed at all, I can't shake my sadness over the news about Larry—a guy almost exactly my age and who, by all appearances, seemed in the kind of shape that typically makes one think of immortals.

While contemplating this, I sit down upon our team's tarp beside Ronald Gainsford, a 70-year-old retired Pittsburgh public school teacher who, though a member of our team, works out on his own in the early afternoons. I first met Ron back in Sewickley over the lunch hour swimming laps at the Y. Despite his age, you could tell immediately from his flawless form he was a great swimmer. I tapped his shoulder in between laps to recruit him. Standing in the shallow end, he pointed to a raised purple scar running like a night crawler down the center of his chest. "I'd love to," he told me, "but I've had a heart transplant, and my doctors don't want me to go too fast."

But over the next year, as Ronald got into better and better shape, his desire to compete grew ever more irresistible, and he finally badgered his doctors into giving him their blessing. His life, he tells me today, has in many ways moved full circle. In 1953, he was rated fourth in the world in the 100- and 200-yard butterfly. He missed the Olympics only because, he explains, "the three guys ahead of me were also from the U.S."

But a series of progressively severe heart attacks in late middle age, however, eventually reduced the volume of blood his heart could pump to a mere sixth of normal. "For five years," he says, "I lived a nursing home quality of life. I couldn't even walk the 25-yard length of the Y's pool without stopping to rest." A few months after turning 65, he finally received a donor heart from a 25-year-old guy killed when his pickup slid off an icy road.

This Baltimore meet, it turns out, is Ron's third since getting the thumb's up to compete. In April, he medaled in several events at the highly competitive US indoor nationals. In July, he placed fourth in breaststroke, sixth in butterfly, and 10th in backstroke at the Masters world competition in Munich—an event that drew 6,700 swimmers, making it the single largest swimming meet ever held.

He shows me his fourth place breaststroke medal he won here in Baltimore earlier today, proud of the fact that he beat his time in Germany. But even as his times continue to drop, Ronald refuses to take full credit for the accomplishments. A day doesn't pass, he says, without him saying a prayer of thanks to the young guy whose heart beats inside him.

"Whenever I talk about my races," he tells me, "I always say we swam well."

I explode over Andre to begin the anchor leg, profoundly hoping the four of us young guys will soon be able to echo these same words: We swam well. Dale, Dick, and Andre can already say this. Now it's up to me to join their ranks.

As always, the tension that's been building in me for hours evaporates the moment water hits my face with a sobering slap. In a 50-meter sprint, there's virtually no strategy involved, not even a turn to worry about missing. Kick hard and raise your head slightly to hydroplane upon the surface, then windmill through the water with as much power and finesse as you can possibly muster. The whole thing is over so quickly you barely need to breathe.

In high school meets, I used to replay the 1812 Overture in my mind while racing—a fact I'd forgotten till right now when, without conscious bidding, a crescendo of musical cannons returns to inspire me anew. Halfway down the pool, the first byproducts of anaerobic respiration begin leaking their way into my tightening arms and legs. I sneak a single breath and will myself to ignore lactic acid's familiar burn. Boom! the cannons roar, the pace of the sound track speeding well beyond the composer's wildest intentions. Boom! they roar again. Boom! Boom!

Through the dark green gloaming, I can now make out a faint black cross signaling the far wall. I charge forward for six more furious arm cycles, then smash my hand against the timing pad. Start to finish, I've swum my 50 meters in 27 seconds plus change. When added to my teammates' splits, our time totals 1:57.29—not bad for a 201-year-old. Not bad at all.

But is it good enough for a medal?

An hour later, the results are posted. "Seventh! We all get medals!" cries out Andre, and the four of us begin whooping like the teenagers that are still very much alive somewhere within us. True, we've missed the world record by 12 seconds. But then again, we four guys—who've forged a friendship while swimming endless laps together in minuscule Sewickley, Pa.—have beaten the entire state of Maryland's "A" and "B" teams. Listen close enough and you can almost hear the lamentations of their women!

Oh, how I love swimming! Oh, how I love swimming meets!

Still in full spin-doctoring mode, I sidestep over to the next age group up—i.e. the 240-279 year category. The world record here, I note with glee, is less than three seconds away. We need only improve our 50 splits by an average of .7 seconds per man. Even better, we've got ten full years of practice to accomplish this. For swimmers like us, ever greater glory seems only a matter of time!

Back in Sewickley a week later, I get an email from Tom Emison:

"I am sorry to report to you that Larry passed away the 23rd, after a long battle with heart problems and two weeks after a devastating stroke. His funeral was jam packed with USMS swimmers. Sad, but upbeat, if that is possible. If you want, do 47 x 50s on 50 seconds in his memory. Larry was 47 years old when he died, and the 50 was his favorite event. A lot of us here in Minnesota did that memorial swim for him last week."

Though I'm the only person in Sewickley that actually knew Larry, that night at practice, all of us swim 50s in honor of one of our own.