Modest and fast, she loves the sport
It's 10 seconds until the set starts.
"Laura, you go first."
"Come on, Laura, you're faster."
"Don't be ridiculous. I'm not faster."
Fifty-year-old Laura Val, SWIM magazine's unanimous choice for 2001 Masters Swimmer of the Year, doesn't want to lead her lane—ironically, this woman, who in 15 years of competing almost never takes second, truly despises going first in practice.
The clock is ticking. Five seconds. Since the only thing worse than going first is breaking the integrity of a set, Val now gives us a remarkable sound of teenage exasperation and pushes off to start our 1,800-yard pull set. She wears huge paddles—they're barn doors—and she is the only Masters swimmer on our 150-member Santa Clara Swim Club team to use a black tube around her ankles (for resistance).
Behind her, the three male swimmers—including me, the writer, the one doing this article—are relieved. We all competed at Division I colleges and we're significantly younger than Val (she will object to the use of "significantly"). The fact is that we are regularly awed to be sharing water with this woman, this phenomenal, see-it-once talent who can kick 100-yard repeats under 1:30 and can hold 100-yard freestyle sets under 1:00.
Of course, we never tell her because the reprisals would be too great. Compliment Val over-generously, and she'll call you soft in the head. Tell her she can do better and she'll respect you in the morning.
Every season seems an incredible carpet ride for Laura Val, but 2001 was truly extraordinary. Check out the stats: 21 world records and 26 national records. Number one rankings in 30 of a possible 53 events (all three pool courses). At age 49, she broke her own national 45-49 age group records in five events (100-, 200-, 500-yard freestyle and 100, 200 butterfly) while finishing first in nine events. At age 49, she swam a lifetime best 53.2 in the 100-yard freestyle, when her previous best was 54.2 from five years previous. Thirty years earlier, when she was a teenager swimming 15,000 meters per day and qualifying for Olympic Trials in 1968 and 1972, her best time in the 100 freestyle was three seconds slower.
But who cares about age 49? Val turned 50 in time for the long course season and finished with 13 number one rankings, 13 national records and 13 world records. In short course meters, she took home another eight number one rankings, eight national records and eight world records. All the more astounding is that Val swam lifetime bests in many of the events, which means her 50-54 records are faster than her own 45-49 records.
Val, who grew up swimming in northern California and has two non-swimming, college-aged daughters, credits Santa Clara Masters Coach John Bitter for last year's success. "He took our training to a new level," she said. "Every day you were pushed to swim fast." She also credits all the people she swims with each morning, especially breaststroker Matt Kanzler, for pushing her to be successful.
"I could give up racing tomorrow, but I want to train forever. That is where the fun is for me." In fact, some of her words to live by include, "Have fun, and don't take yourself too seriously. And don't avoid competition. Competition should be fun. I get nervous before every race, but I can't wait to see what I can do."
Here's how our 2001 Swimmer of the Year does it: she trains 5,000 yards or meters five days a week. She has to force herself to take two days of rest. She swims year-round without break, and can't remember the last time she skipped a workout. She says (and I only halfway believe her) that she doesn't know her times, only her goals. She doesn't keep a logbook and genuinely doesn't know how many national and world records she has set.
Her daily routine is unswerving. From 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. she swims. Afterward, she stops at a bakery for a two-donut breakfast (she weighs 115 pounds—same as 20 years ago—and has a body any 23-year-old would die for). She then arrives at her fast-growing Silicon Valley start-up, where she serves as human resources director and regularly works until 7:30 p.m. with no lunch break.
Val does not lift weights. She does not cross-train, monitor her diet or do stretching exercises. "Swimming is one part of a very busy life," she says. "It's a very important part, but I can only devote a portion of my day to it."
Val never competed in college (she was pre-Title IX), but she trained on club teams until graduating from San Jose State University with a nursing degree. After a decade out of the water, she joined the Los Altos Masters in 1984, and for several years swam only to stay in shape.
In 1987, her teammates talked her into competing at Masters nationals, where she won five events and set five national age group records. The rest is history. Today she trains under Bitter at Santa Clara, but competes for Tamalpais Aquatic Masters because they have a stronger presence at meets.
She's embarrassed about her goals, thinking they sound too lofty: "I want to continue doing lifetime bests," she says. "I know that's unrealistic as I get older, but"
She doesn't finish her sentence. She can't. The only thing unrealistic about her career is to suggest it has limitations.
by P.H. Mullen, published in Swim magazine, May-June, 2002
Her strength comes from her love of the sport. "I can't wait to get back in the water," a feeling she attributes to not having burned out as a youngster, when she was good enough to make the U.S. national team. She has also never been injured, a condition that may stem from her awareness from working 20 years as a registered nurse. "I back off if I feel something weird," she says.
Val swims in a coached Masters workout five days a week from 6:00 to 7:30 am and admits there is peer pressure to go to practice. "You get nasty emails if you don't go."
Where she will be going this spring is to the Santa Clara International Swim Center for short course nationals. She plans to take some time off from her new position as Director of Corporate Administration for Automated Power Exchange. At the pool, in a nice sort of way, she'll just take names and kick butt.
by Michael J. Stott, published in SWIM magazine, March-April 1999
Laura Val, 43, has been swimming Masters for seven years and is faster than she was at 18. In fact, many would argue that Val, for 21 years a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, Calif., is the most dominant athlete in Masters swimming.
At present, Val owns 22 of the 35 long and short course world records in her age group. In the freestyle, she has every record from 50 to 800 meters. The 50 and 100 back and fly records are personal property. And her individual medley records seem safe from any potential challenger. Plus she has 11 national records for yards and a handful of records left over from the 35-39 age group. She is the only woman over 40 ever to break a minute in the 100-yard fly or two minutes in the 200 free.
1994 would have been a phenomenal year for anyone else, but it was a ho-hum year for Val. She ranked first in the nation in 21 events (in all three courses), setting five global marks at the Masters World Championships.
How does Val account for her phenomenal success? "I really love swimming," she says. I enjoy every minute of it. Though I loved it when I was a kid, too, I think I may have overtrained. Now I swim about an hour and a half three or four times a week at Santa Clara Masters. I never do anything I don't want to do."
Val says swimming ranks third on her list of priorities: "First comes my family, then my job, then swimming." As for goals, she mentions two: to do 1:05 in the 100-meter fly (which she did in a USS meet) and to break the 1500-meter record (19:00.40 held by Barbara Dunbar). She's also looking forward to swimming at the 1996 World Masters Championships in Sheffield, England as a 45-year-old.
published in SWIM magazine, March-April 1995
Laura B. Val lives in Santa Clara, California and swims for Santa Clara Swim Club.