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by Robert Singer

December 31, 2009

It's an anti-aging miracle for this 60 year old

Before the Start

I was 60 years old, 5’-10”, and pushing 200 pounds a year ago. My blood pressure was 140/90, and my physician said we’d watch it for six months and put me on medication if it stayed elevated. I had been an avid cyclist and runner, but had to give them up about 12 years ago because of arthritis that resulted in a total hip replacement five years previously. I tried swimming with the local Masters group but the coach focused on the triathletes who had bad strokes and high fitness. I had a good stroke and low fitness, and I found all the drills to be boring and I wanted to spend the time I had allocated to fitness actually swimming. I had been swimming twice a week with my wife, 2,000 yards per workout, and gradually getting slower as I gained weight and aged. My body mass index put me squarely in the “overweight” category. I was depressed about aging and my growing gut. My future looked like a steady decline into heart disease and obesity.

The Start

During our twice-weekly swims a year ago, we noticed a new Masters coach arrived. We met her and she encouraged us to join. She seemed young (everybody was starting to seem young) and she lacked formal coaching experience, so we did not jump into the program. At the end of the summer all the triathletes started to fill up the pool again and it was getting hard to find pool time, so we reluctantly joined the Masters group just to be able to count on part of a lane. The coach, Dennie Swan-Scott, created different workouts for each group of swimmers, and we found the workouts were just right for us. She had a perfect balance of encouragement and ruthlessness that got us to work far harder than we ever did on our own.

At first I would be dead on the couch for the rest of a day after a workout. Dennie’s infectious smile and attitude that it “would be fun” made it impossible to say, “I can’t do that.” She somehow knew just what we could accomplish, and gradually my repeat hundreds on 2:00 minutes went to 1:45, even when I insisted at first I couldn’t repeat on that interval. The workouts crept past 3,000 yards each. That fall I went from twice a week to three times, and then four times a week by adding swims when I traveled for business. Dennie talked us into going to meets, which were intimidating at first but strangely not depressing, even though I wasn’t winning anything. She organized water polo games, silly relays, and several social gatherings at our houses. We had become a group who encouraged each other and it really was fun. Swimming had become our major leisure and social activity. Our other friends were convinced we’d been taken up by aliens or joined a cult, which was not too far from the truth.

The Middle

I was feeling more energy after the practices, and the weight started to come off. I looked at my daily bowl of ice cream as requiring 3,500 yards of swimming to burn off, and it just wasn’t worth it, so I stopped eating desserts without a lot of disappointment. My diet improved because fitness was on my mind all the time, and more weight came off. Within four months I lost 20 pounds, and within eight months my weight was down over 25 pounds and under 170 for the first time in twenty years. My blood pressure was 115/75, and I was off the drug watch list. I no longer had to avoid mirrors, my energy level was up, and I my family reported I was no longer a grouch. I had been planning my second hip replacement surgery, but the pain was reduced, and that surgery is now indefinitely delayed. A side benefit that I never expected, and that I have never read about, is that I stopped snoring.

In the Groove

The swimming is getting to be more and more fun. Dennie has us doing sets that would have killed me a year ago. My maximum heart rate used to peak out at 150, and now I can hold it at 170 during a sprint set. My body mass index is into the “normal” range, and I am starting to think about getting into yoga or something that will help me to regain lost flexibility. I am starting to try swimming strokes, and if my flexibility improves I might start to do flip turns. I recently ramped up my swimming by going into the pool more on my own. My weekly yardage is now around 20,000 yards—a year ago it was 4,000 yards.

My endurance has improved enormously. I can repeat hundreds on 1:40, when a year ago I could only do five 100’s on 2:00. Don’t tell Dennie, but I might be able to repeat on 1:35. However, my sprint times are not much better—I’m not sure how much that will ever improve but I’ve started to do some weight training to get more power, which hopefully may create more speed.

We started doing open water swimming this summer—who knew that would be fun too? Of course the open water swims end with a social breakfast or dinner. During this second year of Masters swimming, I look forward to every workout, the meets, the postal swims, the social events, and next spring’s open water swimming. My life has become a series of interludes between swims.

Why Swimming Works for Me

I was in good company with overweight, out-of-shape, sixty-year-olds. Most of my friends try fad diets and pay for a membership at a health club and get disappointed after a few months, but I had several things going for me:

  • Up until the last twelve years, I had a history of participating in endurance sports. I ran, rode a bike, and always valued fitness.
  • I am a good swimmer and very comfortable in the water. I swam in high school for two years, lived in the Caribbean and swam every day, was into SCUBA diving, wind surfing, and continued fitness swimming at a low level when I had to give up running.
  • I know swimming. My kids swam competitively, and I was a USA and YMCA official for years. My son swims in college and my daughter teaches swimming. Swimming has been part of my life for many years.
  • My wife is a Masters swimmer. She was frustrated when I didn’t swim with her years ago. When I did swim with her she felt compelled to slow down to avoid bruising my ego. Now we are about the same speed and she is a great training partner.
  • The perfect coach took over the program. Dennie has an amazing ability to say just the right thing to everybody to keep everyone motivated. Her swimmers trust her. When she says a miserable, uncomfortable drill will improve technique, we believe her. When she gives us a target time we will try it. She keeps our own heads from getting in our way. She is able to balance the hard work with novelty swims and social events to keep it fun. Her dedication to the program is outstanding. I know she spends many unpaid hours reading about coaching, creating workouts, and tracking our progress. I’d follow her off an iceberg if she said it would be fun.

The Finish

I look at speed records and think to myself, “If I can hold my times I’ll be setting records in my eighties.” However, reality is that I am enjoying an extended vacation from aging. I’ve reversed the clock, but an inevitable decline is still in the future. It may be an injury that takes swimming away from me, or hopefully just a steady decline. A month ago I had a sharp shoulder pain during swimming. Even lifting a water bottle to take a drink hurt. I was depressed for days. I iced, took ibuprofen, and took four days off and felt fine.  However long this vacation from aging lasts, I’m going to enjoy it. I can swim with the forty year-olds and delude myself into being forty for a while, so why not? I’ve told everybody that if the arthritis progresses I want them to wheel me into the pool and tip me into the deep end so I can keep swimming.

Masters swimming has let me regain my health by losing weight, reversing my arthritis, lowering my blood pressure, and raising my aerobic capacity. It restores my self-esteem every time I walk by a mirror, helped developed a new set of friends, made life fun again, and helped my wife sleep better (who knew?) by curing me of snoring! My success is primarily due to two people: 1) My wife, for sticking with me when I was down without being judgmental, being supportive without being pushy, and sticking with it as I’ve become obsessively addicted to swimming; and 2) my coach Dennie who is incredibly good at finding time for all her swimmers to feel like she cares about our individual progress, who is truly inspirational in the way she leads by example by juggling her two jobs, three kids, and personal commitment to swimming, and who I trust to guide my progress past the obstacles my own mind creates.

It’s all about Priorities

There are probably a million ex-competitive swimmers who are deep into adulthood and facing that same depressing decline I experienced. Why don’t more of them get into swimming? Despite having a coach who has the best motivational skills I’ve ever encountered, over half the people who sign up for our program do not stick with it. Of those who drop out, about a quarter register for the program and never show up. I guess they believe they can pay a fee and expect that their fitness will improve. Another quarter only show up once and never return. I think these people are intimidated by sharing a lane, and find that it is more effort than they want. Some of them are un-coachable; they will say, “I want to learn to swim better but I don’t want to put my face in the water.” OK, goodbye.

The remainder who drop out just cannot get to the pool often enough. They start to miss practices, and after missing a few times it gets easier to miss more. Dennie has said, “Once they get addicted it gets easier for them.” She of course is right. The workout routine has to be prioritized above almost everything else for it to work. It has to get easy to say, “Sorry, we can’t ever go out Friday night because we swim Friday evenings and then again early Saturday morning.” I have told clients, “Sorry, I can’t meet with you past 5:00 o’clock on Wednesday” (I don’t tell them because I need to be in the pool at 6:00). When I do have to travel I try to find pools near my destination (the YMCA “Away” membership is great) or I do extra workouts before or after the trip. My family obligations trump swimming, but my family is very understanding and supportive. It’s all about setting fitness swimming as a priority that is higher than all social or discretionary activities. 


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