Article image

by Richard H Rahe

August 21, 2005

There at the birth of Masters swimming

In 1965, at 29 years of age, I, Richard H. Rahe, went on active duty as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy. Ransom Arthur recruited me to his Navy Research Unit because of my early research studies in stress that I carried out as a medical student with my professor Dr. Holmes. The Holmes-Rahe Stress Test still exists today. My first day at the Unit, Ransom invited me to the swimming pool to train with his Navy team. I did a fast first lap and then died in the water. After swimming 2,000 yards a day, five to six days a week, for many months I could keep up with Ransom's workouts.

Ransom always told us that we needed a "competitive spur" to make us train hard. So we entered "all comers" meets throughout southern California where we were placed into heats by our submitted times. I remember in my first breaststroke event I was on the blocks with girls and boys ages 10 to 12. The mothers in the audience snarled at us "old men" racing against their sons and daughters particularly when we won a heat ribbon. Twice a year we swam in All Navy meets where most competitors were in their 20s. We couldn't beat them in the 100-meter events, but due to our better conditioning we would catch them and often win the 200-meter distances.

I began doing research studies of older swimmers and published a dozen studies which now reside in John Spannuth's office. I did body type studies (somatotyping) of older swimmers and compared them to Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) swimmers. If you didn't look at the faces (wrinkles and grey to no hair for older swimmers) you couldn't tell the older swimmers’ physiques from those of the Navy frogmen. I also looked at biochemical indicators of preparedness for stress. It turned out that serum uric acid would often show a significant elevation prior to a major stress. Ransom and I drew blood samples on ourselves prior to and following participation in one of the first U.S. Masters national championships. My uric acid skyrocketed from my normal level (six mg/100 ml of serum) to 14 mg/100ml the morning of my main event! I won the championship that year. The next day my uric acid had returned to normal. My favorite study, done after Masters swimming had become established, was titled "The Rise and Fall of Bodily Energy." Energy was determined by swimmers’ maximum velocity through the water. I took age group records from eight years and up, national records, and Masters records from 25 to 70 years of age, over the 100-yard freestyle. In plotting these records it became apparent that from eight to 21 years of age records (velocity) improved 3% per year. After 21 years, records decreased at a rate of slightly less than 1% per year. There was no sudden fall-off at a later age—such as 40 years.

The gradual decline in velocity seen from approximately 21 years onwards happens to all humans! The very fit swimmer at 21 years, who continue to train, still begins this gradual decline in bodily energy. For example, Mark Spitz and Bumpy Jones both tried to make the Olympic team several years after their original Olympic competitions. They trained harder for their comeback than they had as earlier Olympians and achieved times very close to what they swam then. None-the less, their times were not as fast as those of current 19 to 21 year olds who had trained equally hard.

Staying fit puts swimmers on a decline which is above and parallel to the decline seen for non-athletes. A new Masters swimmer appears to "defeat the aging process" for a few years as they move from a non-athlete's slope of decline up to the slope for a trained athlete. With increasing training a new Masters' swimming velocity may reach the speed of trained swimmers in their age group. Soon, however, the inevitable decline in bodily energy (meaning gradually slower swim times) becomes apparent. Many Masters swimmers at this point look fitfully for new training methods, increase their distances and fast repeats to heroic proportions, or even become depressed and stop their training and/or swimming altogether. This is not what Masters swimming should be. It should be swimming for health through swimming over a life-time!

As the Masters Program developed from 1970 onwards, swimmers in the program shifted from "novice" swimmers wishing to get into shape to more and more former champion swimmers coming out of retirement. I noted that a "novice" Master swimmer (like me) took about three years of hard training to become competitive. Former swimmers got back into competitive shape within six months or so. These former champions, like Lance Larson, Mike Troy, and Bumpy Jones, were still fantastic swimmers! We novice swimmers could never match the stroke mechanics and speed of former champions.

I continued competitive Masters swimming for 20 years. In the mid 70s I led a group of U.S. Masters to the first international Masters meets. These were held in Sydney, Australia and in Auckland, New Zealand. In Auckland we swam against a newly formed team and did very well. I still remember winning the 50-yard freestyle swum in a 33 and 1/3 yard pool. A lap, a turn, and a hard push off. However, in Sydney we swam against former champions (including Dawn Fraser, three time Olympic champion) and were clobbered. However, they gave us many great beer and food parties!

I finished my competitive swimming while stationed in Guam where I was Commanding Officer of the Naval Hospital. I helped organize and compete in Guam's first Masters meet. Over the past 20 years I still swim three to four times a week, 1,650 to 2,000 yards, with some fast repeats toward the end of the workout. As Ransom once said as he aged: "I now swim for health." So, now I might add: "Once a Masters swimmer, always a swimmer."