Stephanie Gibson couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
After figure skating for many years, she began cutting back her eight-hour-a-week practice schedule in April 2014 because of health trouble her doctors couldn’t diagnose. Gibson, who was dealing with fatigue, joint pain, and muscle weakness, recalls a practice in December 2014 where she fell about 20 times over five minutes before leaving the ice in frustration.
She received a diagnosis—or, to be accurate, two diagnoses—in 2016: early degenerative disc disease, which meant she needed to reduce the load she placed on her spine, and rheumatoid arthritis. (She had been diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder that causes vertigo and hearing loss, previously.) Her figure skating career was over.
But she also received a prescription: swimming.
“[The doctor] said swimming would be really good because it doesn’t put the load on your spine,” says Gibson, an unattached member in the Utah LMSC. “He said with my competitive nature, to do competitive swimming. He ordered me to do swimming, which is really funny.”
Gibson was one of nearly 1,300 U.S. Masters Swimming members who participated in the SmartyPants Vitamins USMS Winter Fitness Challenge between Feb. 15-28. The event was the first of USMS’s inaugural Fitness Series, which includes the Summer Fitness Challenge, a 2K swim between July 15-31, and the Fall Fitness Challenge, a 1-mile swim between Nov. 15-30.
Robyn Hughes, an unattached member in the Maryland LMSC, was drawn to the 30-minute swim because of the fundraising component of the Winter Fitness Challenge, which raised nearly $9,000 for the USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation. Since 2012, the foundation has granted around $430,000 to programs nationwide that provide swimming lessons to adults.
The cause hits close to home for Hughes, who learned how to swim at an early age because her father wanted her to know how after one of his friends drowned when they were children.
“For me, [swimming has] been a profound experience,” Hughes says. “My father was the one who first inspired me to start swimming. My father committed himself to promoting the importance of being a good swimmer and being a safe swimmer.”
Because of her 20/500 vision—what someone with perfect vision can see 500 feet away is what she can see at 20—Hughes, a backstroker, needed someone to walk alongside the pool deck and shout, “Flags,” whenever she approached the backstroke flags while swimming.
Hughes completed 13 laps during her swim, which fits with her half-mile-per-session, two-times-a-week swimming routine. Her mother, Norma Service, who served as Hughes’s guide for the swim, says Hughes was excited about completing the swim.
The same holds true for Gibson, who swims two or three times a week for an hour each session but must stop occasionally because of dizziness. She says she swam threshold pace, or what her coach says she can hold for 10 x 100s, for the entire swim just to prove that she could.
“I could’ve kept going, so that was good,” Gibson says. “It’s relaxing to get in the pool and go.”