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by Mary Lathram

December 21, 2008

Just keeps swimming

Mary McCracken Lathram was born in Portland Ore. She is a member of DC Masters and besides swimming competitions, she also competes in track events for the Potomac Valley Track Club, mostly racewalking which she says, “ exhilarates me.” She has also competed in the discus throw, shot put and softball activities.

Her plan is to stay fit for life. At the age of 93 her training consists of racewalking three times per week and swimming three times per week. She limits her swimming to freestyle and backstroke, swimming about 40 minutes each workout.

Mary didn't learn to swim until she was eight years old. She belonged to a girls swimming club, but only the men could form teams. She started swimming for fitness when she was 65 and soon after started Masters which she says keeps her motivated, “I just love swimming and Masters provides fun meets.”

She competes in about four or five local meets a year and also attends Senior Olympics and USMS national championships.

She became a pool USMS All-American in 1986 and a Long Distance All-American in 1996. After aging up to 85 in 2000 she placed first in the three SCY backstroke events. She achieved All-American status the following year in the 1500-meter and 1650-yard freestyle events. Turning 90 in 2005 was her year for first place national finishes with 10, as well as setting a world record on April 09 in the 200-meter backstroke in a time of 6:24.99.

Most of her family swim for fun, and her son, Steven, is a member of the Dolphin Club in San Francisco.Mary was a teacher. She married Wade Lathram in 1943. When he was in the Foreign Service they traveled a lot, living in India, Turkey and Korea. Wade died of respiratory failure in 2000.

She is currently living in Falls Church Virginia at Goodwin House Bailey's Crossroads, a “wonderful” retirement house. She is always busy with music, trips and serving on committees.

Mary's hobbies are leading a small singing group and participating in a grand group led by Encore founder and executive director Jeanne Kelly.

The following memoir was written on October 7, 1999:


by Mary Lathram

My breathing was getting harder, I was gasping a bit, but I knew that after the second lap of this long racewalk the breathing would stabilize into a comfortable rhythm.

Four judges, spaced around the track, were carefully scrutinizing each walker for infractions, either for bent leg (the leg must be straight at the beginning and at the top of each stride) or for running—even for one step during which both feet are off the ground.

As usual I am by far the oldest participant at this local annual track event. As speedy walkers lap me I often hear “swing those arms more,” “hang in there,” “lookin' good” and other encouragements. Oh-oh, a judge is holding up the bent knee sign and saying, “Watch that right leg.” Egad, if I get three such warnings I am DQd (disqualified). Am I getting too old for this? No, I want to hang in at least until next year and my 85th birthday when I enter a new competitive age group.

It's hard to keep that right knee straight, must watch it. Relax the shoulders, swing arms better, keep head up, concentrate. Friend Lucy, my lap counter for several years calls out lap markers plus “doing fine” or “pick it up a little” as I repeatedly pass the starting point.

This event is unique. It is the One Hour Racewalk and track and field clubs all over the US offer it, including Potomac Valley Track Club to which I belong. All walkers just see how far they can go in an hour. It is grueling and I love it. I love being able to do it. The first time I entered this event two years ago I won nationally in my age group. Not too many 80-84 year olds enter it.

Halleluiah! The hour is up and I have gone farther than last year, Lucy is ecstatic and I am feeling great too.

My interest in fitness began more than 20 years ago when Slyline Racquet & Health club opened nearby and a neighbor and I decided we should swim to lose weight and to keep fit. A lifeguard talked me into entering a local US Masters swim meet. This required my joining DC Masters, one of many clubs in the country affiliated with National US Masters swimming. While I was pretty nervous at that first meet, it wasn't too bad and I did rather well in several backstroke events.

The camaraderie and exertion were fun but not the nervousness, and I resolved never again to attend a national meet. Well, it is now 1999. There are two nationals a year and I have attended 25 of them all over the country, from California to Rhode Island, from Florida to Oregon and many in between. The experience is exhilarating and I feel privileged each time I swim in one of these remarkable events.

There were two reasons for this turnaround. First, it happened that the next nationals were held in Portland, Ore., where I was born and still had many family members and friends. The second reason was a bit more subtle. It gradually sank into me that no one but me cared how I looked, either. When I took stock of my feelings about competitions the pluses far outweighed the minuses, and I have never again been nervous at a swim competition.

I am a fairly good swimmer and I have been in the Top Ten in the national US Masters swimmers listing for more than 15 years. But I am not a record breaker and usually get seconds through maybe sixths, depending on how many attend in my age group and my current age within that group. I am 84 now and those 80 year olds are aging up and zooming away. I learned to swim as a child, but never swam competitively until I was 65 years old.

Anne, my dear friend and roommate at meets, is a record breaker and first place winner. I have been asked if it bothers me to swim in Anne's wake. We are close in age and swim the same stroke events. It bothers me not at all. She is a faster swimmer, and we both do the best we can each time we dive in.

When I return home from a meet, friends at Goodwin House West ask “Did you win?” or “How many golds did you get this time?” Their interest is kindly meant but these are the wrong questions. They would never think to ask, “Were you happy with your times?” but those times are the records I keep. Actually, I have about 40 pounds of medals including my share of golds, but I try to no longer accept them. When they have one of those Olympic stands with first, second and third place platforms and your name is called you kind of have to get up there.

Most top Masters swimmers work out two hours a day at least five days a week. I am what is called a fitness swimmer as I try to go three times a week for only an hour. I have seen young women swimmers in the locker room shaving the soft fuzz on their arms to take off tenths of a second from their times. I have heard a young man in an age group with forty swimmers entered, studying the heat sheet and saying eagerly “I think I can get an eighth place.” And dear Gus who turned 95 this year and thus entered a new age group, broke or set a record in every event he swam.

I see these swimming friends once or twice a year and we have become closely bonded by experiencing the same joys and frustrations in our sport. I attend not only Masters meets but also Senior Olympics at the local, state, and national levels since the early 1980s. For many years Wade and I both enjoyed these trips immensely when we could go together and he golfed while I racewalked and swam. It has been very hard for him to give up golf as his emphysema had progressed. He continues, however, to encourage me to participate as long as I am able, and I leave of course knowing that he is surrounded by friends, with all the amenities of comfortable living provided, as well as loving health care professionals.

It is hard to make others understand the satisfaction I get from my sports, hard actually for me to analyze it. I got some insight from an article in a recent monthly health letter, which explains “an almost mystical experience that occurs when you are in sync with the activity you're performing.” The last of the listed components of this experience is “A sense of euphoria and joy.”


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