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by Jo Newhouse

April 21, 2002

A dentist and canoe builder, too

`Just finish, breathing,' Setting records easier at 84

by Jo Newhouse, of the Oregonian staff (1977)

Question: How do you write a story about the accomplishments of an 84-year-old-jock?

Answer: Quickly. Before he sets a new record.

Collister Wheeler is the national record holder in the over-80 bracket in the 50-, 100-, and 200-yard freestyle and was third in the 50-yard breaststroke swimming events of Masters competition. He also holds the 50-, 100- and 200-meter records, Masters track javelin mark and is third in the discus.

And he spends much of his time building canoes.

Wheeler, who is refreshingly open about the fact that "only five percent of us (octogenarians) are still around," says, "I'm about the only person in my division. All I have to do is swim the race and still be breathing when I finish and I've set a record."

Wheeler, who prefers to be called Collie (just like the dog) will be competing Friday and Saturday in the regional championships of the 1978 Oregon Associations Masters Swimming championships, hosted by the Multnomah Athletic Club.

The national organization is designed to encourage people over 25 to swim for health, fun and friendly competition.

The Oregon contingent, which began several years ago with two people, now numbers more than 200, including 28 ranked among the top ten in their divisions.

"There are some outstanding swimmers from this area," said Wheeler, "Earl Walter (among the 1977 top 10 in seven 55-59 age-group events), Connie Wilson (chairwoman of the Oregon competition and ranked in three backstroke events), and Roy Webster (national 75-79 age group 100- and 200-yard breaststroke winner and ranked in six events).

"I've got more publicity than I've got need for," said the charismatic champion. "Those people deserve it more than I do. I'm not that good—people only want to talk to me because they are amazed that I'm still kicking."

Doug Crichton, chairman of the Masters aquatic program at MAC and Wheeler's original recruiter, disagrees.

"Collie is the most inspirational member we've had at the MAC. We all aspire to be 84 years young like he is."

"At 84, all you have to do is breathe," countered Wheeler.

It is inspirational to see an octogenarian as fit as Wheeler. His thick head of hair would do credit to a scalp balm advertisement. He is an active member of the Portland Rowing Club ("the only active member," he adds) and is rumored to be able to do 12 finger-tip pushups.

"I don't feel much different than I did five years ago." said the retired dentist. `My doctor said ‘I'll give you a one year warranty—but not a guarantee.' That's good enough.”

"A person does get slower over the years," he said. "If you take the track and swim records, you'll notice that the times get slower in every age category, and there is a big jump when you hit the 70s. But I feel exercise has slowed that drop for me. "I've done exercise so long that I'd fall apart if I stopped."

A member of MAC since 1912, Wheeler's first swimming competition was the Christmas swim from the Madison bridge to the foot of Salmon St. in 1911—100 yards in 35-degree water.

After high school, he gave up competitive swimming for more than 50 years. A graduate of the University of Oregon Dental School, he retired as a Navy captain in 1962 and as a dentist in 1968.

He began Masters competition at the age of 83, setting records with every stroke, then followed his success by setting a national record in the discus at the 1976 meet. One of MAC's original group of 100-mile joggers, he also runs the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter race, and is confident that he could set a national mark in the high jump as well.

But there are limits. "I'd give $100 if I could walk on my hands," he said. "That's one thing I had to give up a few years ago."

Masters swimming competition begins Friday with the 1650-yard freestyle at 5:30 p.m. Saturday's schedule begins at 10 a.m.


from a newspaper story in 1991:

The writers remembrance of him began at an AAU swimming meet at Janzten Beach during the summer of 1938. I had just won my first State Championship, and Collie came up to me, saying "Young man is your father Earl Walter?" , Yes Sir, I am Earl Walter Jr. With that started a friendship which goes on forever. Collie was born June 20,1893 on Portland's East Side, he lived his entire life in the city. He was a sailor during WWI, before becoming a dentist. Then served as a dentist aboard ship during WWII. In the Korean War, he was a Navy Captain, and headed the reserve dental program from Washington, D.C. He retired from dentistry at the age of 75. His love of sports came early with weightlifting. Joe Loprenzi, MAC manager in weight training, called him the "father of weightlifting." Collie took up boxing when he was 18, and claimed the championship of the Irvington district. In short order switched to canoeing, and became an expert and leader in that field. His love of swimming was ever present, with many, many hours spent officiating for the AAU. In his early 80s, he dived into Masters swimming. Opening with three national records for the 50,100, and 200 free, which were the first national records for OMS. Collie became OMS' second All- American in 1976. He won his first national championship events in 1977 in Spokane. During the first World Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand, he won the 50- and 100-meter free, setting a world record in the 100. He continued swimming and setting national and world records into his 90s, and was an All-American each year that he swam. Simultaneously he was a champion and record setter in Masters Track and Field. Many stories of him come to mind, just a few; During the LC Nationals at Mt. Hood he was 89, and most upset that a 90 year old from San Francisco was receiving all the glory, Collie was just weeks away from being 90, and his times were much faster. At the championships in New Zealand, Collie had the misfortune to swim the finals of the 400 free at 11 p.m. It was too much and he did not finish, however, this was instrumental in changing the format, to where the old folks started swimming first. My favorite, brings to mind an incident, pool side at MHCC, just before the 1982 nationals. Collie was telling Dawn Musselman and OB about his walking on his hands the length of the old MAC 25 yard pool, when he was younger, and that he could still walk a fair distance even that day. This brought a "guffaw" from a young man sitting nearby, with that Collie got up and proceeded to walk on his hands for a distance of 10 to15 feet. Nuff said! We received news that Collie would not be able to swim. Collie and Roy Webster had been boxing the previous day. Roy ducked a strong overhand right, and Collie threw his shoulder out. This was in his 90s. Collister (Collie),"just like the dog," he always said, was quite a man, athlete and leader by example and deed, will forever be remembered by OMS for his many many contributions to Masters swimming. Adieu Collie, thanks for the memories.


from a newspaper story in 1991

Dr. Collister Wheeler, a retired dentist since 1975 is 98 years young and says, "I'm not ready to commit suicide yet. I'm enjoying life." Wheeler is married to a woman considerably younger and is in remarkable health. His eyes "are as good as can be expected" allowing him to enjoy a favorite pastime, reading three or more hours a day—and his hearing is half or less than normal, but he is active with his investments and exercising. He lifts weights three times a week for 50 minutes and says he is the oldest weight lifter in the world.

He eats very little meat but "lots of chicken, turkey" and weighs the same as he did when he went into the service in 1917, but says he's fatter. Why? Because, he says, with age the muscles shrink and he is now five feet, eight inches tall from his younger five feet, nine inches. He wishes researchers would study why. He swims for 15 minutes one to two times a week.

Dr. Wheeler says he has very good health "or I wouldn't be here" and enjoys one and a half cocktails every night (bourbon or rum.) He advises eating a lot of buttermilk and yogurt. Good health, he believes, is largely diet and exercise.

 From Winged M, the Mutnomah Club magazine

Collie Wheeler Sets World Records On Track, In Pool

"Who ever thought I'd set any world records at my age," says October Jogger of the Month, Dr. Collister Wheeler!!

MAC's 83-year-old retired dentist set four world records this year in swimming and two in track and field. The swimming marks resulted in feature stories about Collie this past spring in the March 27 OREGONlAN, the March 31 COMMUNITY PRESS, and a picture with caption in the March 8 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.

The amphibious champion says "all this commotion started back on January 31." At the urging of this author and others, Collie entered his first swim meet in over 50 years. It was a Masters meet held at MAC, and the results were astounding!

Competing in the 80 and over age division, he swam 43.3 in the 50-yard freestyle to break the world record of 1:03.6 by over 20 seconds. In the 100 free, he splashed to a 1:39.2 which smashed the existing mark of 2:40.5, and in the 200 free he established a new mark of 3:33.8.

On June 6 at Lake Oswego High School, Collie set his fourth world standard with a 55.16 in the 50-yard breaststroke. This qualifies MAC's ageless wonder for the 1976 All-American ranking. He will be receiving notification within the next two months as the first MAC masters swimmer to receive such notoriety!

No sooner had Collie climbed out of the pool than he had a discus in hand ready to train for the Masters National Track & Field Championships July 2-4 at Mt. Hood Community College. With only four weeks training, Collie spun the platter 65' 9.5" for a new world record in the 80+ age group in the discus.

One of MAC's original group of 100 mile joggers, he then showed why he would be a fine decathlon athlete with a 20.14 in the 100-meter dash and a sizzling 42.04 in the 200 meters on the Mt. Hood oval. His 200 time cracked the existing 80+ standard and his 100 mark was a world age 83 record.

Excelling both on the track and in the water, which sport does the versatile record breaker enjoy the most? "I enjoy swimming better than running, but both are good for cardiovascular fitness," he says.

"Swimming requires relaxation and rhythm. Don't fight the water," Collie adds.

"Running involves more stress on the joints. You must start out slowly and build yourself up. Work for your own enjoyment."

Although admittedly "haphazard" about recording mileage at MAC, Collie has covered "over 1,800 miles running and 400 miles swimming since the mid-sixties. However, I've had an exercise program at MAC ever since I was 19 years old!"

I joined MAC in November of 1912 on an athletic membership and was the first one of Jack Cody's (MAC's nationally famous swim coach from 1912-1950) kids to win a state championship. That was in the 1913 Rose Festival 500-yard swim in the Willamette River. I also won in 1912, but I beat the MAC boys that year and I think Jack Cody wanted me on the same team so he offered me a membership."

Following two years of swimming for MAC, Collie took up canoeing. "I got bored and decided to try something new," he adds. He proceeded to distinguish himself as the best all-around canoeist in the state by winning state championships in singles, doubles and fours from 1914-1917.

Collie's athletic endeavors were then interrupted by World War I and attendance following the war at University of Oregon Dental School. He graduated in 1923 and spent 45 years practicing dentistry. This included 34 years in the Medical Arts Building in downtown Portland and 11 years on active duty in the Navy.

"I was reactivated for World War II and served seven more years following the war," he says. Collie followed this up with ten years reserve duty in Portland and retired as a Navy captain in 1962.

He received the MAC President's Award in 1970 for his many years of service to club athletic programs. "For most of the years from 1926-1942, I was the chairman of the Weightlifting Committee," comments Collie. "This was back when competitive weight-lifting was popular."

Joe Loprinzi, a MAC weightlifter in the 30s and 40s and current Conditioning Department Head, says, "Although Collie never competed in weightlifting, he built the MAC program into one of the strongest in the nation back in the 30s and 40s. As a result, he was selected as the Vice-Chairman of the United States Olympic Weightlifting Committee for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

What does MAC's multi-world record holder attribute his long life and good health to? "Common sense, moderation and a little luck," he says. "My lifelong exercise program and staying away from starches, fats, and sugar has helped." When asked about fluid intake he responds with a chuckle, "I try to drink only once a day at what they call happy hour."

Collie's bride of three years, Frances Wheeler, "swims a little to stay fit." She adds with a twinkle in her eye, "I never really knew what physical conditioning was until I married Collie. He's so active it's like running a marathon to keep up with him."

Doug Crichton, Multnoman Athletic Club magazine, October, 1976.

from Larry Sullivan, Collie's grandson

Oral history of Collister Wheeler (1893-1997) by Earl Walter

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