Age: 50; Workout Group: Multnomah Athletic Club (MAC)
The first time I recall experiencing the impulse to race in the water came in December, 1974, in Norman, Oklahoma. My older brother and sister were swimming in a meet, and I was relegated to the stands. As a 3rd generation “Okie”, my family didn’t have a swimming tradition. By his own admission, my dad wasn’t much of an athlete and my uncles had excelled in the more traditional Oklahoma sports of football and track. Yet, my brother and sister, 2 and 3 years my senior, had found their way onto the swim team. The outcome of the racing that day is not part of my memory; I just remember wanting to dive in and race. I hadn’t taken many swimming lessons and other than some limited success at summer camp, there was no basis for this urge. I soon joined my siblings on the swim team, and 3 months later, I competed in the 8-and-under 50 yard backstroke. As I touched the wall, I looked up to see my Dad leaning over the pool edge yelling “You won!”. Of course, at the time I didn’t realize its magnitude, but in retrospect, this was the singular moment when I discovered that I was a swimmer.
The ensuing years represented my awakening as an athlete and sports fan. I was a huge Oklahoma Sooners and Dallas Cowboys football fan which meant lots of championships in those days. But without a doubt, my favorite experience came at age 10 with the 1976 Montreal Olympics. I watched an American men’s team win every individual and relay event except for one. From this stunning display of dominance emerged my childhood hero, John Naber, who swept the backstroke events and won 4 gold medals. This Olympics also marked the dark and mysterious emergence of “doping” with the East German women winning nearly all of the events while using performance enhancing drugs in a state-sponsored program that wouldn’t fully be exposed for more than 20 years. Despite this, the American women pulled off an impossible upset of the East Germans in the 4 x 100 Freestyle relay in perhaps the most memorable race of the entire Olympics. As it turns out, my good friend Karen Andrus-Hughes was close childhood friends with the lead-off swimmer of that relay, Oregon’s own Kim Peyton. I enjoyed recently reading Karen’s personal account of her friendship with Kim giving me just one degree of separation from this fantastic story. The ‘76 Games was an inspiring way for an American kid to connect to swimming, and after that I was hooked for life as a devotee of the sport.
I imagine my high school swimming years looked pretty standard to most other swimmers. My day started at 5:00 am for two-a-days and ended by 9:00 pm in an utterly unexciting existence that allowed me to stay out of trouble (although I sometimes envied those getting into trouble). I learned that no matter how big my chaotic teenage mind made my “problems” seem, 6,000 yards in the water always held the promise of calm and perspective. Training was mostly drudgery, but twice yearly came that magical period wonderfully and affectionately referred to as the “taper”. Among the greatest memories of my teenage years were when my high school team prepared to enjoy the fruits of our months of effort, and high school state gave us those Springsteen-like “Glory Days” memories to enjoy for a lifetime.
Ultimately, I decided not to swim in college, so high school graduation marked the end of my competitive swimming years. Despite this, I realized I had been given the gift of a go-to exercise. Truth told, I’m not nuts about working out, yet I always love getting in the pool. There’s a joy in moving weightlessly through the water which takes the “work” out of workout which simply doesn’t exist for me in any other form of exercise. I’m a physician and during the decade of my medical education I mostly swam alone without regard to competitive goals which allowed me to maintain a decent level of fitness in my 20s and 30s.
When I turned 40, I moved to Portland and started a solo medical practice downtown. Once I got busy, I made the brilliant decision to stop swimming altogether. I remained “devoted” to that decision for 6 years (I was in full workaholic mode) until one day I looked in the mirror and saw one out-of-shape guy. How had I let it get to this? I had recently gotten into the MAC through the lottery and decided to drop in on a Masters workout. I remember starting my warm-up and being winded before even finishing a hundred. A teammate commented that I “needed a little work on my core” (you can translate), and that was the last straw! From that point on, I dedicated myself to swimming at least four times per week. I began entering meets and was impressed by how many opportunities there were to compete in the area. I couldn’t believe how excited I would get anticipating a meet and how nervous I could still be behind the blocks. There was a child-like wonder to the experience, and I was sold. As my times dropped, I got more motivated, swam more, felt better and swam even faster which created a cycle of infinitely better physical and mental health for me.
Through competition, I discovered the larger world of Oregon Masters Swimming. For anyone who hasn’t been to one of Dennis Baker’s Oregon Reign workouts at Mt. Hood Community College, it’s a sight to behold. On the deck, megaphone in hand, is a living legend in Oregon swimming (who I learned they call “Bake”) lording over 8 lanes of Masters swimmers in an outdoor long course pool surrounded by a rain forest (at least from the perspective of a guy from Oklahoma). At meets, I soon realized I had the easy job of showing up to race. For every swim meet, there are the heroes who put in untold hours to host them demonstrating the incredible spirit of volunteerism in Oregon Masters swimming. Tim Waud, Aubree Gustafson and Bob Bruce became my heroes for their efforts in hosting annual events, Tim’s being the annual spring Oregon City dual-sanctioned meet (not to mention co-directing this past summer’s Nationals meet in Gresham), Aubree’s the end-of-summer Gil Young meet and Bob’s the entire Oregon Open Water series each summer. As much as I respected fellow swimmers for their achievements in the water, it was these individuals and the armies of volunteers they organized who left me in awe. I will mention two fellow competitors who I’ve adopted as mentors, Dave Radcliff and Willard Lamb. Through their excellence, longevity and by simply being awesome guys, they have shown the way for those of us also searching for the fountain of youth in chlorinated water.
With all of the fun I’ve had competing in my latest chapter of competitive swimming, by far the greatest gift of all has been the relationships I’ve gained, which begins with my team at the MAC. I wouldn’t ordinarily get excited to plunge into the cold water in the dead of winter after a long day of work, but the camaraderie of teammates and the ability to enjoy friendly duels has made this one of my favorite parts of the week. My coaches Jill Marie Asch and Alix Danielson and my teammates Daemon Anastas, Brad Bachulis, Hailey Bambusch, Lauren Binder, Ted Bonus, Marc Bowen, George Dingeldein, Kelsey O’Banion, Jordan Porter, Jessica Stacy, Eric Wan and Brent Washburne have been my consistent companions for the past several years. And there’s our recent addition of Olympic gold medalist, Kurt Grote, who has seriously raised the bar of our workouts! Together, they have inspired me to work harder and get better all while enjoying the effort in a way I simply can’t imagine doing alone.
There’s the saying that we are born with our first family and get to choose our second one through the friends we make. This past June, I turned 50 and admittedly got a little introspective as I faced the second half of life. I realized I am most grateful for my family, my friends and my health. Four years ago, I found all three in the swimming pool, and for this reason, I cherish the fact that I have always been and will always be a swimmer.