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by Barbara Reed

July 19, 2000

"It's a discipline, like brushing your teeth"

No, no, he doesn't kick frogs, but he can give them a good run for their money in a swimming pool, pound for pound. Dr. Joseph Kurtzman is a 71-year old world record-holding butterfly swimming champion. He's swum so long and so far that the old frog kick is still allowed. The butterfly developed from the breaststroke and when he began competing in the 1930s, swimmers could use either the frog kick or the dolphin in the fly. It is still the privilege of being a Master swimmer. “Master” refers to age, not ability, just as it does in golf. It's only the youngsters who are required to use the faster but far more fatiguing dolphin kick that only the best can master and win with. One of his mottos is "You can't teach an old frog new kicks." Another, emblazoned on his Masters’ T-shirt reads "Last Man Alive Wins."

This mature, dedicated athlete with so many world records trailing in his wake is in another class altogether from the “must keep my hair dry,” “fair weather” pool-paddler of his age. He is also in another class from the young athlete who peaks early and burns out before maturity, sustaining injuries and, sometimes, permanent damage to muscles through injudicious, too intense training. He is a phenomenon too rarely seen and may be a disappearing breed. More's the loss. His casual, easy manner and approach would inspire any novice or has-been to be confident of making a commendable “personal best” at any Masters swim meet. It must be Dr. Kurtzman's innate “bedside manner.”

He is a New Jersey-born, retired ophthalmologist who takes the "keep the arm muscles soft and loose" approach to training. How many of us have seen swimmers before a race shaking themselves loose as though in a swarm of flies. As to what is generally called training today, he doesn't do it. There is no jogging or weight-training, no special diets. "Sometimes I just sit by the pool for a few minutes while I decide to go in. Sometimes I don't go in at all. But, I never do more than about 1,000 to 1,200 yards in my daily routine - a mile maximum. I like to make my short-distance practice quality time, to get the most out of every stroke. And I never enter a competition that will take more than 3 minutes to complete. That's my limit." Gulp! Doesn't he realize that the average good swimmer of his age might do only 50 yards or so in the same time it takes him to complete 200 yards of the butterfly and that a 1,000-yard daily practice would make most mortals stretcher-cases? When questioned, as many swimmers are, on the boredom of it all, he replied, "Yes, runners and joggers are right; it's boring and no, I don't swim in the sea. I like to see the line on the bottom of the pool. It's a discipline, like any other, like brushing your teeth, good for you." To pass the time and keep up a rhythmic stroke, he sings! He has his favorite songs like "Dixie" for the 100-meter butterfly or "A Capital Ship ..." for the 200-meter. It is addictive and effective. Try it.

For his first introduction to the water he was thrown in to sink or swim. Having older water-savvy brothers accounts for this brutal introduction—a method that would probably land a sibling or parent in children's court today. His first competition was at age 10. "I took third place in the Skeeter Class with the 20-yard dog-paddle," he says proudly. He comes from an athletic family, has a younger brother who is a Master swimmer and two older brothers and a sister who also swam competitively. When he left grade school he was captain of the swimming team, a role he dove into just as easily at high school (where he was still in the 90-lb. weight class) and at Princeton where he did his pre-med degree.

The Navy first brought him to Charleston in 1952 when he replaced the ship's surgeon killed when the minesweeper "Hobson" was rammed by the U.S.S. "Wasp" off the coast of Spain. He later was stationed at Beaufort, S.C. and Pensacola, Fla., and, as a high-record holder, made the U.S.N. Olympic Swim Team. When he and his young family finally settled in Charleston permanently in 1961 he set up practice as an ophthalmologist. Having three young boys of his own in 1964, he helped organize the first Star Fish Swimming Team at the Jewish Community Center in Charleston. He coached and his boys competed. His youngest is now 42 and swims in Masters meets. Dr. Kurtzman was happy to retire in 1989, "when the Good Lord granted a lifelong wish for a lap pool." It seems that hurricane Hugo filled his small office building with enough water to swim in. He lost a lifetime's medical records and so decided to call it quits.

It is particularly enlightening to learn from a medical man about sports and training for seniors. Moderation seems to be the key. "Your body is your best coach; listen to it. With age, it becomes more difficult to get the heart rate/pulse rate up, a beneficial thing. At 70 years old, getting it up to 140 and back down to 100 is very good. Swimming is the best exercise for cardiovascular efficiency at whatever speed or whatever level you swim; and after all, you're buoyed up by the water and the heart is in a horizontal position so it pumps more efficiently. Muscle loss? Of course it occurs and there is nothing one can do about it. Two percent muscle-mass loss per year of age from 20 onwards is inevitable. Weight training will do nothing to restore muscle loss. Muscle tone can be improved with kicking and stroking in the water and, along with stretching, is the best training for seniors. Luckily, men are not as subject to osteoporosis as women, but certainly to arthritis. I've suffered bouts of traumatic (sudden, paralyzing) arthritis for which I've taken a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and used icepacks, as well as ultra-sonic electrical stimulation at the Low Country Physical Rehabilitation Center. Both disabilities are much improved by swimming. Diet? I eat red meat once or twice a week and when I don't have it, miss it less and less. I like seafood and pasta, and beer, but stay away from greasy foods. Along with a daily multi-vitamin, I consume about 2,000 calories a day."

Dr. Kurtzman's accomplishments and dedication to his sport are not something that all seniors aspire to or are anywhere near capable of achieving but he is so positive in his approach and gracious in making it all sound possible and pleasurable. "Join a Masters Club. There's one at St. Andrew's Recreation Center. Learn to get the most out of your strokes, in your own time and at your own level. The camaraderie of competition is one of the highlights."

from Active Lifetimes.

Joseph L. Kurtzman lived in Charleston, S.C., and swam for Florida Maverick Masters. He died on February 1, 2005, from prostate cancer.