Swimmer Spotlight: Bonnie B. Speer 1

Age 83
Retired Program Analyst for Federal Government
Local Team: LaCamas Headhunters

Bonnie Speer

Bonnie Speer

It was in the spring of 1967 when I found myself living in Naha, Okinawa, Japan. I was 33 years old and a stay-at-home mom with 3 young children.  My husband had been assigned to the Naha Air Force Base.  Because the conflict in Vietnam was raging, many military members had been assigned to bases on the island.  There was not enough housing on the bases to accommodate all of the families, so we were encouraged to stay in the United States.  If we did go, we would have had to live in a Japanese style house off base with no air conditioning or telephone.  I really wanted to go, so there I was!  It was a fascinating and unusual place to live.  But, indeed, it was hot with a humidity to match.

The Air Base had a great 50-meter swimming pool near the main gate close to where we lived.  As soon as the school year ended, the American Red Cross initiated a swimming program for the many American children who were living there.  I enrolled my 3 children and was taking them for lessons every day.  It looked like so much fun!  I was a non-swimmer as were so many of the other mothers whose children were having lessons.  The director of the swimming program decided to start an adult class.  Most of us were delighted about it and enrolled in the class.

Little did we know when we registered what a fun summer we would have.  During that summer, we progressed from non-swimmers through intermediate level swimmers.  In the fall, several of us continued on with senior life saving and then Water Safety Instructor.  In those days, the Red Cross programs were all about water safety and not so much about perfect strokes and speed.  I was so proud when I received my WSI Certificate!

All too soon our 2 years were over, and we were assigned to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.  And what do you know, there was a big 50-meter swimming pool just across the street from the housing area.  The Red Cross Volunteers had just cut off registration after enrolling 400 children for their beginners’ summer swimming program.  When I told them I was a “WSI”, they relented and registered my 3 children if I would teach in the program.  Wow! I was delighted with the opportunity.

In the fall the Red Cross Volunteers started an evening program at Delaware State College and asked me to help with it.  They included a mixed adult class in the program, but none of the younger and more experienced instructors wanted to work with it.  How could I not volunteer!  Some of the men were quite large, but we always had a life guard on duty-after all, “safety first”.

Our next assignment was Scott Air Force Base in Southern Illinois.  By then, I was a regular with the Red Cross swimming programs and loved every minute of it.  My children had become good swimmers and one of them would accompany me as my helper and demonstrator.  My husband retired from the Air Force, and we moved to Denver, Colorado.

In Denver, I started a Federal Civil Service career of my own.  And guess what, my first position was with the Air Force.  At the time, they were promoting volunteerism as a way to give back to the community, and actually gave me paid time off work to teach swimming in the summer Red Cross Program at Lowery Air Force Base.  One of my most rewarding experiences was teaching a class of young airmen.  They were young men from small towns and places where there was no opportunity to have swim lessons and swim teams.  They had grown up non-swimmers like me.  My big reward was that they all learned to swim.  They were always so enthusiastic and appreciative.  It was against the rules, but on our last class day, I took them to the diving area and taught them how to dog paddle.  They were like 5-year olds!  I just considered it safety training.

As I got promoted in my career and moved on to work in other Government Agencies, there was no more time off to teach swimming.  Over my 32-year career I worked for the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Social Security Administration.  I tried to find time to swim myself when I could.

In an effort to improve myself, I began attending college in the evening.  I also took advantage of the many training opportunities offered to me by the government.  My most challenging opportunity was a 6-year development program with the Social Security Administration.  The very intense classroom time was spent studying Social Security laws and regulations.  After each segment, we would then have a field assignment to try to apply what we had learned.  It was “sink or swim” time and a realization of just how complex laws and regulations are!  After the 6 years, I was promoted to Program Analyst and assigned to the Denver Regional Quality Assurance Office.  For the next 15 years, along with many other things, I was required to travel about 1 week per month to one of the 6 states in our region: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.  In a small sample of certain error-prone cases, we had to visit the claimants in their homes and collect information and evidence to make sure the letter of the law had been followed.

In 1991, I had a fusion in my cervical spine.  My neurosurgeon told me that “swimming” was the best therapy he could think of to aide my recovery.  He didn’t know how much I loved swimming, but that is when I began to be more serious about finding a place and time to swim.

Hiking is another activity that I have enjoyed.  In Colorado, I belonged to the Colorado Mountain Club and did high altitude hiking.  I have hiked segments of all 3 of America’s “Triple Crown Hiking Trails” (The Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide).  I have traveled most of my adult life, living in all 4 U.S. Time Zones multiple times and visiting 45 of our 50 states.  Since my retirement in 2003, I have visited many of the European Countries, but my most fascinating trips were to the Patagonian Region of Argentina and Chile, Easter Island, and my 2 African Safari adventure trips to 5 Southern African countries.  I also enjoy reading and listening to classical music.

I had been retired 3 years when I moved to Camas, Washington, in 2006.  I was delighted when I discovered the LaCamas Swim and Sport Club right in my neighborhood.  One look at the Grass Valley pool, and I joined.  I wanted to improve my swimming skills so I registered for their Swim Clinic 1.  It taught a new and different style of swimming from the one I had learned in Okinawa back in 1967.  Soon, I adapted to the new method and enjoyed it so much I continued on with Clinics II, III, and IV.  I was always in the pool practicing my swimming.

Bonnie Speer

Bonnie Speer

In 2007, I had an unfortunate rotator cuff injury.  It was a full-thickness tear of the supraspinatus and infraspinatus tendons in my right shoulder, and was determined (by the doctors) to be surgically irreparable.  I also had osteoarthritis in my shoulders.  I was sent to physical therapy for a long period of time and was told I would probably have to give up swimming.  I remembered what the neurosurgeon had told me in 1991 and went back to the pool.  At first, I could awkwardly swim about 3 laps, but I kept going back.  Gradually, I kept doing better and swimming longer always mindful of my injured shoulder.


Swimming in competition in a meet had never occurred to me, but there was “talk” around the pool about a meet inBend, Oregon to take place in April, 2009.  I didn’t think I was accomplished enough to register for the meet.  Several of the other swimmers, and club owner and coach, Denise Croucher kept working on me.  Anyway, I went to Bend and swam in my first meet at age 75.  I had always thought “The Headhunters” were such an awesome group and now I was one of them!  It was a thrill to get my first blue ribbon and the most points for my team.  I didn’t know about the age thing until that meet.

I now have quite a collection of blue ribbons and a few red ones, too.  I also have a collection of medals for the I-hour Postal Swim I do every year.  I can’t leave out my “Oldest Woman” trophy I received for completing the 69th Annual Roy Webster Columbia River Cross-Channel Swim.  This past summer, in August 2016, I swam in my first Nationals at Mt. Hood College in Gresham and received 2 gold medals and 1 silver.

As heart-warming and exciting as the blue ribbons and medals are, it is really not so much about the winning.  It is the lure of the water, and about the joy and tranquility that swimming brings.  It is about all the health and fitness benefits.  And it is especially about all of the nice people you meet along the way, the great coaches and the comradery of the best group of people in the world.

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One thought on “Swimmer Spotlight: Bonnie B. Speer

  • frank philipps

    “As heart-warming and exciting as the blue ribbons and medals are, it is really not so much about the winning. It is the lure of the water, and about the joy and tranquility that swimming brings. It is about all the health and fitness benefits. And it is especially about all of the nice people you meet along the way, the great coaches and the comradery of the best group of people in the world.” …quoting Bonnie Speer

    True words about the real value of Master’s swimming! Most of us do not compete at meets, but we do compete in our practices constantly with our friends for fun….and what great friendships we make over this desire to swim well. Thank you Bonnie for your story, what a great adventure.