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Tale of a Mid-Sixties Swim Babe

June 1, 2010
by Kate Coleman ’65
a cartoon of two women holding one trophy

Twenty-eight years ago I took up swimming after I finally quit smoking for the last time. I was 39 and believed I was teetering into middle age. Up until that point, I rather scorned athletics and sports as bourgeois. After Berkeley, I’d gone to New York, where the only exercise I got in was running in the streets as an anti-war-activist. I saw myself as a French New Wave cinema femme fatale wielding my cigarette and louche look as powerful sexual weapons of conquest.

But, back in Berkeley by the early 1980s, athleticism became attractive and, along with dire health messages about smoking, I suddenly wanted to embrace the new thing of life-affirming jock-dom. Besides, I had to do something to get my ya-yas out, now that I couldn’t sublimate with my ever-present cancer stick. I tried running, but quickly learned I was land-challenged. I became an above-average swimmer once I’d learned all the strokes, and there I remained.

For years, I swam four days a week as a member of UC Berkeley’s Strawberry Canyon Aquatic Masters (SCAM) team and also as a cold-water San Francisco Bay swimmer with the Dolphin Club. Most of all, I loved summer open-water season, when I competed in Northern California lakes, rivers, the ocean, and Bay—sans wet suit. Only occasionally did I attempt pool meets.

That was then. A few years ago, when I was about to turn 65, I suddenly began winning like crazy. I had shifted into a whole new gear: dropping weight and upping my swimming to five and often six days a week. Competition had made me focus on what I could do better. The day after each meet I’d come back to my swim lane and notice I was appreciably faster, more fluid, and more relaxed.

In 2008, I was injured but still went to Nationals, gobbling ibuprofen throughout the day, scratching most of my events but, still, winning the 100-yard-butterfly.

Then, in 2009 I began noticing at major swim meets that even in the older folks’ competition—in my 65- to 69-year-old age group—the women were squeezing and shimmying into those skin-tight (body flattering) high-tech body suits that, at $400, were out of my price range. The suit became my obsession. I was ready to beg, borrow, or steal the money to get a suit that would level the watery playing fields.

I was envious and grumpy about it until the day I opened my jewelry box and saw gold in them there troughs. I grabbed the giant, clunky 24-carat earrings I’d inherited from my Beverly Hills aunt, along with crumbled old dental gold fillings, and hightailed it to my local gold exchange down on Solano Avenue in Berkeley. With the earrings alone, I had a fist full of hundred-dollar-bills—exactly what I needed for the new suit.

And it paid off: My first event was the 500-yard freestyle and I dove in and shot out a third of the way across the pool. I out-swam the rest, who were all wearing their own fast suits—and, incidentally, beating a champion rival I’d never previously beaten. I swam a stunning 19 seconds faster than my last 500 the month before. I picked up six more medals that weekend. In 2009, 12 of my races were national Top Tens. And, to bray a little more, last year I was the age group open-water- champion for Pacific Masters, competing in 13 open-water swims, including swimming 2.7 miles across Donner Lake, and cold ocean/bay swims in Santa Cruz, winning most of them.

More shocking than my victories, is that in the last several years, I’ve achieved my personal-best times since I started Masters swimming over 25 years ago, performing much faster in my 60s than in my 40s.

But, I doubt I’ll be able to do the same stellar times I did last year because in June, the high-tech suits will be banned. And it’s hard to keep up the same level of intensity year after year. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to me whether I stop improving my times —well, just a little bit. What matters more is to be able to keep swimming and be a part of the terrific community of fellow water babies. Whether it’s racing on New Year’s Day from Alcatraz to San Francisco in 50-degree water without a wet suit, or competing in swim meets and dipping daily with my SCAM team pals in my 1:40 lane on the UC campus.

If anyone had told me in 1965, when I was a boho Berkeley co-ed and a Free Speech Movement partisan, that one day I’d be an accomplished, maniac swimmer in my mid-60s dotage, I would have laughed myself silly in disbelief.

Freud believed we humans don’t ever really change. But really, we do.

Kate Coleman encourages swimmers seeking fitness and fun to take the plunge with her UC Berkeley SCAM team or other Masters group.
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