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by P H Mullen

May 7, 2002

First to swim under the mythical barrier

You want to know how far swimming has come in 40 years? You want to know just how good Masters swimmer Paul Smith is? In 2001, Smith, a 41-year-old from Vail, Colo., became the first person over 40 to break 2 minutes in the 200-meter freestyle. In 1964, Olympic gold medalist Don Schollander had been the first to swim under the mythical barrier; 37 years later, in 2001, Smith's record-breaking age group time was faster. And Smith was coming off reconstructive shoulder surgery. And Smith swims only three times per week.

A former collegiate swimmer at the University of California at Santa Barbara who resumed swimming only three years ago, Smith practices at 7,000 feet with Vail Swimming in the same lane as his wife, also a former UCSB swimmer. Of about 50 Masters swimmers, they are the only two who compete.

Obviously, she's a great training partner because in 2001, Smith clocked times of 47.00 in the 100-yard freestyle and 1:43.37 in the 200-yard freestyle. Those times—both earning him No. 1 rankings—would have made him an attractive recruit for nearly every Division I college swim team. He also turned in a 23.05 in the 50-yard fly, a time that would beat most male swimmers half his age.

All told, Smith closed 2001 with four world records (including the incredible sub-2:00 200-meter freestyle in long course), seven national records and 13 number one rankings. Not bad, considering in late 2000 his shoulder surgery had required the removal of one-inch from his clavicle and left him unable to take a powerful stroke for months. Even today he's unable to swim butterfly in practice.

Smith runs a sales agency that requires travel, and in 2001 he spent 140 nights on the road. He stayed fit by checking out the U.S. Masters web site ( to find local teams so he could keep training. It's a great way to make new friends in the sport, but this kind of uneven training probably won't sustain him forever. Meanwhile, his age group is teeming with exceptional talent.

But that doesn't overly concern him. "We should look beyond the sport's dichotomy (i.e., do we swim to compete or to stay in shape?). What's beautiful about swimming is that every day it offers you a test to extend and better yourself."

In fact, the key to his success to date, he says, is that he loves to race and knows how to balance swimming with the rest of his life.

published in Swim magazine, May-June 2002