- Human Interest
Record-Setting Pettijohn Keeps Following Passions
The Montgomery Ancient Mariners swimmer does therapeutic volunteer work with horses
As a young girl growing up in Baltimore, Margot K. Pettijohn had two childhood pursuits: horses and swimming. Now, as a 71-year-old retiree, she’s pursuing them both again, setting records and changing lives along the way.
When she’s not at swim practice—90 minutes a day, five days a week, year-round with an additional long course practice in the summer—Pettijohn spends much of her time at Rickman Horse Farm Park in rural Boyds, Md.
“Since I was a girl, I was horse-crazy,” the Montgomery Ancient Mariners swimmer says while grooming Okie-Dokie, one of eight active horses in the Great and Small program. “In fact, one elementary school teacher told my parents she wished I’d be half as crazy about school as I was about horses.”
Shortly after she retired from her job as a computer specialist with the federal government in 2011, Pettijohn started volunteering at Great and Small, a nonprofit hippotherapy and therapeutic riding center for children and adults with physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities. The program serves 45 students who learn to ride, groom, and interact with horses.
As one of 134 volunteers, Pettijohn leads horses and riders through 30-minute- or hour-long riding lessons. She also instructs riders on how to groom and prepare the horses for riding.
Over the years, she’s volunteered as a horse leader for summer camp sessions, school groups, horse shows, and trips to schools and assisted living homes. Pettijohn also combines photography—another of her avocations—with her volunteering, as the unofficial photographer for Great and Small. She took most of the photographs featured on the organization’s website.
“Margot approaches her work here with a level of professionalism like it was a paid job,” says Karen Brittle, program director at Great and Small. “She is extremely reliable and very dedicated to both the horse side and the human side.”
Brittle praised Pettijohn for her introduction of craniosacral therapy training, which is taught by a licensed physical therapist to staff and volunteers at Great and Small. After the training, she organized weekly “energy work” sessions in what is essentially massage therapy for horses. “These horses have hard jobs,” says Rachel Neff, the center’s director. “It’s very hard mentally for them. The therapy helps them decompress.”
Pettijohn’s swimming and her overall fitness are assets to the therapeutic riding program. “Swimming is a great help for Margot’s ability to work with the horses,” says Brittle. “It really helps to have volunteers who are physically fit. You have to be able to walk 4 to 6 miles per hour with a horse for one hour.”
“Being in good physical shape, I can trot alongside the horses for long periods of time,” Pettijohn says. Good technique is important to handling horses, just as it is in swimming.
Pettijohn learned to swim at age 5, swam competitively in the summer and joined her high school team, but didn’t swim year-round. She then joined the synchronized swim team at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. “In some ways, synchronized swimming is a lot harder than competitive swimming,” she says.
After being away from competitive swimming since 1964, Pettijohn jumped back in and joined the Ancient Mariners in the fall of 1992, just as her two daughters were ready for college. To prepare for her Masters debut, she did some “serious laps” during the summer on her own. For her 46th birthday that July, her daughters surprised her with a swim bag full of gear and a supply of practice suits.
“The first two or three months (of Masters), I was in ‘survival mode,’” she says. “I was so happy the first time I could do a whole practice … with flip turns!”
Encouraged by Ancient Mariners coach Tom Denes, she entered a “fun” short course meet in her first year and swam the 200 IM. “I got lapped, and I got the ‘pity clap,’” she says. “But I survived and had fun and went on to do other meets.”
That was the last time in her Masters Swimming career that Pettijohn heard the pity clap. By 1993, she had recorded four Top 10 times in breaststroke. Even though she’d spent more than 25 years out of the pool, her times continued to drop and she caught up to others in her age group. She supplemented her practices with a few swim lessons to sharpen her form and technique.
Age hasn’t slowed her times much. Pettijohn’s record-breaking 100-meter breaststroke (short course) time in 2016 was nearly two seconds faster than her time in 1993. Her 50-meter breaststroke (long course) time last year was less than a second slower than her Top 10 time at age 47.
Pettijohn has a hard time choosing which of her two pursuits she loves the most. “I guess I’d put it this way: Swimming makes me feel great physically and mentally, but working with the horses and riders does that and makes my heart feel great, too,” she says. “Every time I go out there, I get something special from the riders. Their progress is so inspiring. The riders advance so much, it brings tears to my eyes.”
In the pool, Pettijohn always is focused on the future, especially when new opportunities for record-breaking times present themselves. She’s broken 14 national records in the butterfly, breaststroke, and individual medley events since January 2016. “My husband thinks it’s crazy that I look forward to aging up,” she says, laughing, “but I do!”
Pettijohn, who’s recorded 465 Top 10 times and 16 All-American honors, is somewhat in awe of her own accomplishments despite everything she’s achieved. “I never want to take any of this for granted,” she says. “I always pick up my ribbons and medals. It’s so special to me that I can do this.”
Pettijohn’s ultimate goal is to just keep on swimming.
“I want to be one of those really older swimmers whom everyone marvels at,” she says. “You know, the ones who when they swim an event, everyone says, ‘I want to be like her.’”