Swimmers of all ages compete in championships

Nearly every day at the IU Outdoor Pool, one might see a 68-year-old former Olympian swim next to an IU graduate student. A student could also spot an 85-year-old IU alumnus performing the backstroke while a current IU senior warms up alongside.

To members of the IU Masters Swimming Club, age is nothing but a number.

And Joel Stager, a professor in the kinesiology department and director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“(The swimmers) all interact as colleagues and friends,” said Stager, who has swum with the club since the late 1970s. “I can’t think of a whole lot of groups that are like that. ... Age doesn’t become much of an issue in the water.”

Forty-two members of the team will be competing in the U.S. Masters Swimming Long Course Nationals running Aug. 6-10 at the IU-Purdue University Indianapolis Natatorium. The event is the second of two national events supported by the U.S. Masters Swimming, a group founded in 1970 to promote continued competition for former swimmers.

“The people who swim at nationals are frequently people who used to appear in the Olympics or are really top-quality swimmers,” said Peter Finn, a swimmer on the IU Masters team and professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “You have quite a range of people.”

The swimmers have different motivations for heading to the pool on a daily basis. For the older members, training sessions promote wellness and can potentially slow the aging process.

“Our research interests are sort of tied in with our hobby,” Stager said of his and Finn’s swimming schedule. “Our data basically shows that there may be as much as a 15-year offset between the chronological age and the biological age. A 60-year-old Master’s swimmer may look like more like a 45-year-old.”

Senior Kayla Abbott said she enjoys time in the pool with the IU Masters despite the age difference.

“You can get a lot of advice from them because they have a lot of experience,” Abbott said.

For former Olympian and IU alumnus Alan Somers, the main draw to the swimming lanes is the social aspect.

“You wouldn’t think that people who have their head underwater all the time would socialize very much, but you do at the end of the pool and in the locker room and that sort of thing,” Somers said.

The 68-year-old competed in the 1960 Summer Olympics, finishing fifth and seventh in the 400-meter and 1,500-meter freestyle, respectively. He was 19 at the time.

After his swimming career, he studied to become a neurologist and brought a practice to Bloomington about 15 years after graduating. His return also resulted in his comeback to the pool.

Somers said he will swim with the club for nationals in the relays, although he has mixed feelings on the subject.

“It’s a form of post-traumatic stress disorder in that when you go to these Masters meets, you get the same feeling I’ve had before – a lot of anxiety and that sort of thing,” he said.

Somers said he feels the races take a greater toll on him as well.

“When you get in these meets, you tend to swim hard, and it’s really painful,” he said, grimacing at the thought. “I end up going faster than I intended to go. I don’t know if I really want to feel all that pain at this age.”

Despite the possible aches and pains, Finn said he expects his team to compete at a high level.

“We’re actually hoping that we might be able to win the nationals,” he said.

Finn said he has reason to believe the team is capable of such a lofty feat. The IU swim team, currently under the direction of coach Ray Looze, has a long history of excellence dating back to its first men’s NCAA championship title in 1968.

Some of the swimmers from that era as well as several former Olympians make up the IU team heading to the IUPUI Natatorium.

“It exposes kind of a statement to the quality of IU swimming as well as just the community at IU,” Finn said.

Despite the strength of the team, Stager said he faced jitters about racing against top competitors from across the country. While he said he generally has performed well at these meets, he said he never knows what to expect from his opponents.

“The closer it gets, the more anxious I become about the whole thing,” he said. “I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”

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