Age, ailments no match for the “Fab Four”
In 1521, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon was killed on a beach near what would eventually become Fort Myers, Fla. History tells us the famous conquistador met his maker at the business end of a poison-tipped arrow hurled by a native Floridian defending his land; this turn of events put an abrupt end to his fabled search for the Fountain of Youth.
In actuality, Ponce de Leon probably never spent much time searching for the fountain, but it was something many 16th century people believed existed somewhere in the New World. According to these tales, a single sip from or dip in this magical reservoir could impart immortal life. Ponce de Leon became synonymous with the legend of the fountain of youth when a disgruntled contemporary sought to discredit him after his death by writing that he died on a quixotic mission for everlasting life.
Whether he actually did the searching or not, our species’ endless quest for eternal existence is pervasive and compelling. Every society has tales of a magical, life-extending font of water that would save everyone if only it could be found. But where the heck is it already?
Well, nearly 500 years later, it seems the fountain of youth has been discovered—in Florida, no less!—if the recent escapades of four Masters swimmers can stand as evidence. These four swimmers—88-year-old Bill Adams, 90-year-old John Corse, 91-year-old Ed Graves, and 93-year-old Tiger Holmes—all of Jacksonville, Fla., have apparently been splashing around in the fountain of youth for years and are showing no signs of stopping anytime soon.
In October 2014 at the Sixth Annual Rowdy Gaines Masters Classic held in Orlando, Fla., this Florida Aquatic Combined Team relay, dubbed the “Fab Four,” set several relay world and national records and inspired the Masters Swimming community—and lots of other folks—in the process. Competing in the 360-399 age group at the meet, the Fab Four set world records in the men’s 400 and 800 freestyle relays and national records in the men’s 360+ age group in the 200 and 400 freestyle relays and the 200 medley relay. The 360+ age group is the oldest currently recognized by FINA and USMS. Relay age groups are calculated by adding the ages of all four swimmers together; in this case, the team clocks in at a robust 362, an average age of 90.5 years.
A Social Training Routine
All originally from Jacksonville, Fla., these four men knew each other a little as children and younger men. All four learned to swim early and all four swam in college. They also served in the military during World War II, and all four went on to have storied and interesting lives and careers that took them away from Jacksonville for various lengths of time. They eventually made it back and reconnected with each other and swimming several years ago. (See the January-February 2015 issue of SWIMMER magazine for more on the interesting lives these four have led.)
Finding themselves retired and back in Jacksonville in the mid-2000s, it didn’t take long for Tiger Holmes—who had been swimming regularly all his life—to convince the others to return to the pool. Ever since, the four have been swimming together three days a week. They usually train in the late morning and will often head out for lunch together afterwards, making their swims both an athletic and social outing.
This is a smart way to keep motivated, says Jonathan F. Bean, M.D., associate professor at Harvard Medical School in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation and the director of research at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital network in Charlestown, Mass. By rewarding themselves with a social outing after their exercise sessions, these four swimmers are much more likely to stick with their workout routine for the long term, meaning they may well live longer and maintain their independence longer than sedentary adults. “The social aspect of the exercise is something that for people who enjoy those kinds of social experiences, it’s one of the best ways to maintain exercise and activity,” he says.
Many Masters swimmers know all too well that motivation can be the toughest part of keeping up a consistent training and racing routine, and that’s true for these four swimmers, too, despite their position as inspirational motivators to the masses. Adams says that sometimes he dreads going to swim, but he’s always glad he did after it’s over, and Graves recognizes that swimming with his friends makes all the difference. Graves and his wife spend their summers at their second home in North Carolina, and he feels the absence of his teammates when he’s there. “I have swum alone. There will be two or three or four other people in the pool, but it’s hard going down there when you’re not with a group. And then when I come back here, it makes all the difference in the world, because they are counting on me and we’re all counting on several of us to swim together.”
Corse agrees: “If you have a group that gets together regularly and expects you to be there, it puts the pressure on you to show up. Otherwise, if I was practicing on my own I’d probably find a million reasons why I couldn’t do it that day and I would skip.”
Maintaining Independence Through Exercise
All four men say that swimming together keeps them accountable, which in turn has enabled them to reap the positive benefits of regular exercise, making life more livable as they age. All have had various ailments, aches and pains, and conditions that can limit mobility in athletes and independence in sedentary adults.
Bean says managing a range of conditions as we age is typical, regardless of how much exercise we get. “On average, adults 70 years and older are going to be managed for four or five chronic conditions by their primary care physician,” he says. This means that older adults must communicate with their physicians about their intended physical activity plans and discuss whether any of the conditions they are managing or the medications they may be taking to control these conditions will limit their ability to exercise.
Despite the need for caution, an older human body still responds to training stimulus in a predictable way. Bean advises older adults to apply the same training principles of scalability that younger adults use when rehabilitating an injury or initially taking up exercise. “Sometimes you need to use the same training principles, such as progression and specificity and overload, but you just ratchet it down to the level where that person is.”
Doing the best they can each time they swim is a guiding principle for the Fab Four who are, like many other adults their age, managing several conditions each. But unlike most adults who don’t get enough exercise as they age, these men are tapping into a real fountain of youth. “I have back problems,” says Graves, “and I think the swimming has alleviated a lot of that. I think it’s obvious … I’ve got several friends now, they’re hobbling bad, and a lot have already died, probably 90 percent of all my friends are dead. So I feel like I’m very lucky and I think swimming is a big part of it. It’s the reason I’m in the condition I am today,” he says.
Inspiration to Spare
And whether they realize it or not, they’re not only inspiring younger swimmers, but each other as well. Graves says that swimming with his friend Tiger Holmes helps keep him motivated. “Tiger is such an inspiration, because I think he’s had every joint replaced. He’s had heart work, a pacemaker.”
Watching these men swim lap after lap, records or not, says Olympian Rowdy Gaines who hosted the October meet where the Fab Four made history—“was one of the major experiences of my life. It really was. It was one of the most incredible memories I’ll ever have with swimming. I think that anybody who was there will tell you that it was just really special. It was history.” Gaines, who’s also one of the most iconic swimmers ever to grace the sport and an Olympic commentator who’s become synonymous with elite swimming over the past 20 years (see the January-February issue of SWIMMER magazine for more on his storied life), says the experience brought him to tears and resulted in the Fab Four being presented with the Growing Bolder Inspiration Award at the meet.
Ever pragmatic and humble, the four swimmers have taken the praise that’s been heaped on them in stride and deflected it where they can. Adams says the team’s success comes down to “mathematical probability,” while Corse says, “it’s a bit like a dancing elephant; it’s not that we do it so well, it’s that we can do it at all.” Similarly, Graves says it’s a numbers game. “We’ve got four guys who are pretty good and in pretty good shape, that’s why we’ve been able to be very successful.”
Swimming to Live, Living to Swim
In a classic chicken-or-the-egg debate, Bean, who has not treated any of these swimmers, says it’s difficult to say whether older athletes are healthier because they’re more active and engaged or if they’re more active and engaged because they’re healthier. “It’s hard to say because some of that is self-selection. Part of the reason that these folks are still being very physically active is because they’re genetically wired to retain those skills, versus someone else. That being said, exercise is a behavior, and clearly people who decide to stay mobile and stay active, that’s better for their overall health and independence. There’s no guarantee that they’ll live forever, or that they’re going to retain their physical functioning forever, but it’s the best medicine we have for retaining physical function as people age.”
And for us swimmers, it should come as no surprise that Bean recommends water-based activities for staying fit as we age. “Water based-exercise, whether it’s swimming or another type, if it’s done in a way that’s safe … is a terrific way to stay fit for your whole lifetime. It’s a wonderful activity.”
This statement rings true for the four Jacksonville swimmers. Though they all learned to swim as young children, only Holmes continued all through his adult years; the others took many decades away from the pool. But returning to the sport was like coming home for them, with a side benefit of enriching and extending their lives.
“Swimming for me is about exercise, because I need to have exercise,” says Adams. “It’s been the best thing that’s happened to any of us. I’m sure that the reason all of us are alive is that we do this.”
These days most people say the fountain of youth is a myth, but we Masters swimmers know the real story: It’s in every pool and open water swimming hole we frequent. Perhaps Ponce de Leon would be proud of the “Fab Four” for finally unveiling the location of these special waters; it seems he may have simply been searching the wrong coast of the peninsular state. He should have headed for Jacksonville, or maybe just his local pool instead.
For more on this inspiring story, check out a recent episode of the Daily Buzz with Rowdy Gaines and Tiger Holmes.
- Human Interest