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by Ken Kimball

July 19, 2000

There at the dawn of Masters Swimming

Ever wonder how Masters swimming began? Many are aware that Captain Ransom Arthur, M.D., and John Spannuth are considered the founders of what has become United States Masters Swimming. But exactly how did the organization evolve in its initial days? From where did the original idea of competitive swimming for adults arise? I am uniquely qualified to share the story of the genesis of Masters swimming with you—because I was there.

Back in 1962, while serving as a dentist in the U.S. Navy in San Diego, I began swimming at noon for exercise and to lose weight. Another naval swimmer recruited me to swim for a team in the 11th Naval District swim meet, and I agreed reluctantly, having been out of competition for 12 years. Swimming a 100-meter free, I was out in a quick 34.8, but returned home in over a minute to finish in 1:40. I vowed to never again be that bad. Thus, I began my second swimming career.

Just before the same meet the following year, Ransom Arthur showed up to swim, just having been transferred to a new neuropsychiatric unit at nearby Point Loma. As the senior officer and team coach, I immediately recruited Ransom for the meet and shared coaching duties with him. I was transferred to Taiwan soon after the 1963 meet, but made it a point to keep in touch with Ransom.

In Taiwan, I started an AAU age group team with Dennis Poltock, a 59-year-old Englishman. Each year, we traveled to Hong Kong to compete in a harbor swim and the Hong Kong Open, where in 1965 at the age of 35, I swam two lifetime bests but earned only third and fourth places. As a result, I was somewhat depressed. Dennis, attempting to cheer me up, said, "I wish we were able to swim against swimmers our own age!" That very night, I awoke with the concept of age group swimming for adults.

Immediately, I wrote to Ransom about the idea, but at first he wasn't interested. In 1966, I was transferred back to San Diego, where I continued swimming with Ransom and the Navy team. The older age group competition idea was discussed frequently in the locker room.

In 1968, John Spannuth, Phillips 66 coach and president of the American Swim Coaches Association, formed a committee on adult age group swimming, naming Ransom as chairman and me as a member of the committee. In the meantime, Ransom was realizing, as I had a few years earlier, that he couldn't compete with the youngsters.

The first national swim meet for adults was held in May 1970 in Amarillo, Texas, where John had moved to start an AAU swim team. John volunteered to serve as meet host, placed a small ad in Swimming World and welcomed 46 adult swimmers who competed in three age groups: 25-34, 35-44 and 45 and over. Ransom and Ham Anderson, the late historian of USMS, were the only swimmers in the upper age category. I recollect that all meet participants were able to fit into the home of an Amarillo team member for a party on the first night of the meet.

Encouraged by the success of the meet, a second national competition was again hosted by John in Amarillo in May 1971 and grew to 108 swimmers. However, with growth came challenges. Local clubs were forming, and relays consisted of the four fastest swimmers on the club, regardless of age. Not surprisingly, teams were recruiting 25-year-olds and ignoring the older swimmers.

So, I was once again awakened in the middle of the night with a novel idea—add the ages of the relay swimmers and place them in age groups. Suddenly, everyone was recruiting older swimmers, and the third nationals, held in San Mateo, Calif., attracted 325 swimmers. Heats of the 1650 freestyle continued until the wee hours of the morning.

In the ensuing years, Masters swimming continued to grow, and John Spannuth, who had become the AAU executive director, took Masters swimming under his wing at the AAU. As we all know, adult competitive swimming eventually became autonomous as United States Masters Swimming. John went on to become President and CEO of the United States Water Fitness Association, headquartered in Boynton Beach, Fla.

Unfortunately, Ransom passed away in October of 1989, just before his induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in May of 1990. USMS named its most prestigious service award after Ransom, who was its first recipient in 1973.

And what of Ken Kimball? He still swims in meets and was fortunate to make the All-American list in 1996 in the 65-69 age group. And, every now and then, be wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks, "Now what if....? "

Masters Swimming: Present at the Creation,as related by Ken Kimball and in the July-August 1997 issue of SWIM magazine

Kenneth R. Kimball lives in Poway, Calif., and swims for San Diego Swim Masters.