By Rosemary Olsen, Huntsman World Senior Games Athlete
About 58 years ago, I had three months of lessons at the YMCA, but I had never swum laps until after my husband’s bypass surgery three years ago and subsequent diagnosis of stage IV melanoma cancer four months later. He began swimming to strengthen his heart and immune system so I tagged along. I’ll never forget my first day in a real regulation pool. I doubted I could make it to the other side of the pool, 25 yards away. And the outdoor pool was 50 meters—an unimaginable distance! The charlie horses were real.
Over the next 18 months I swam regularly. With the help of YouTube tutorials and a coaching session with a high school senior, my confidence grew and I began to think of myself as a swimmer. Whenever my GPS would tell me to exit the highway in one mile, I would smile and think, “Easy! I swam farther than that this morning.” The pool was my happy place! I would rather swim than walk. But I didn’t have any aspirations to compete.
I had heard about the Huntsman World Senior Games from neighbors who had participated for decades. My husband’s cousin and his sister went every year. Even my ophthalmologist mentioned going. The seed was planted and I began to toy with the idea of joining other enthusiasts in St. George for the Huntsman World Senior Games. I visited the website and became more excited! Bocce ball and bowling were two of the sports, and in the alphabetical listing, square dancing was right before swimming. The Games sounded like a lot of fun! Old folks staying active and enjoying themselves. Seniors swimming together, varicose veins and all.
I asked the helpful lifeguard at our neighborhood pool to watch my strokes and give me some feedback. He suggested the breaststroke was my best bet for a medal and encouraged me to compete in the 50 and 100 meter events. I laughed him off, assuring him I was only going to St. George for fun. Just to get my feet wet. I registered and got my athlete number. I was in!
Wednesday, October 6, 2021
When I entered the state-of-the-art Center for Human Performance at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah I saw the largest body of water under one roof that I had ever seen! It was awe-inspiring, almost as breathtaking as the perfectly-cut grass at Fenway Park. I felt giddy and excited! I marveled at the two-story glass windows, sunlight streaming in, bright blue water and an enormous digital scoreboard. It was an Olympic-sized pool, 50 meters long and and 25 meters wide, with two rolling bulkheads that allowed it to be divided into 3 sections, the center section being 25 meters long and divided into 8 lanes. That’s were I would be racing. I couldn’t be more thrilled!
It was early afternoon, after the morning events, and I practically had the place to myself! The water was competitively cold, but invigorating. I was in heaven! “This is like being alone in Carnegie Hall with a 9’ Steinway!” I texted home. There were only three or four other senior swimmers there. A couple of them were trying out a few tentative dives from the starting blocks, and it looked like they were newbies, just like me. That gave me the courage to shakily climb up on a starting block and join them. It was much higher than it looked, and my chicken heart got the better of me. Instead, I climbed down and attempted some less-than-successful dives from the deck. Bellyflops and goggles askew confirmed my decision to skip a dive and just begin the race in the water the next day, pushing off from the wall.
At her invitation, I had dropped in during the warm-up time to meet Cindy Gilmore, a local swimmer, a Games veteran, and friend of Ruth and Terry Reid, my hosts. They told me she was the right person to give me a few pointers since she had “a room full of medals” and was “just the nicest person you’ll ever meet.” They were right.
Cindy had come to keep me from “DQ-ing” the next day. I understood enough about the rules to know that it was very easy to be disqualified in my event. For breaststroke, l would dive in or push off the wall and was allowed one dolphin kick, a pulldown, a breaststroke kick, and then my head must break the water before the first stroke. The turn required a simultaneous two-hand touch. I knew how to do those undulating kicks I’d seen on YouTube, but I wasn’t sure what just one dolphin kick looked like. Where exactly did it start and end? I didn’t want to get DQ’d out of sheer ignorance. With my meet the next day, we wisely decided to scrap the dolphin kick.
I thought Cindy would watch me once, pass me off, and be on her way. But she generously stayed to do some “wall-work” with me, as she called it. She had me practice my start and turns for about 20 minutes. By the end, she said I looked very comfortable in the water and had natural ability. I left the pool with a surge of confidence and excitement for my very first race in my very first meet the next day.
Thursday, October 7, 2021
My elation of the previous day quickly turned to apprehension, then anxiety, and finally full-on terror the next morning. WHAT WAS I THINKING?! I thought I was there to have fun, but the mood in the venue was all business. This was serious. It was the real deal. The fact that they had asked for my US Masters membership number when I registered should have tipped me off. The fact that I had to pay an extra five dollars because I didn’t belong to an official Masters team should have further tipped me off. This was a fully-sanctioned U.S. Masters Sanctioned Swim Meet. And I had never even seen a meet, much less swum in one. I was utterly clueless. A lamb to the slaughter.
When I arrived, about 80 swimmers were milling around on the deck. The observation gallery above the pool had seating for 750. “How’s the water?” “Feels kinda’ heavy today.” Heavy? Heavy?? I thought it felt wet. Wet and cold. 78.8 degrees, to be exact.
Over their swimsuits, many of the swimmers were wearing full-length robes which looked like waterproof raincoats with an absorbent lining to keep the muscles warm. Their names were monogrammed on the front and their team names were emblazoned across the back, Rocky Balboa prize-fighter style: “Dolphin Club, Dallas Texas.” I was feeling very insignificant in my Land’s End $29.99 suit and the thrift store sweats I’d picked up the day before. (I didn’t expect to be cold, but the chilly water and air conditioned venue had me shivering.)
Swimmers had staked out their personal spaces on the deck. Some brought their own lawn chairs, coolers with energy drinks and crossword puzzles to kill time. Others were getting ready for their events, doing impressive stretches on yoga mats and wearing noise-canceling headphones, getting into their competitive head space, I could only assume. I felt like I’d dropped into the Olympics.
There was a line forming at the pool’s office window where everyone was waiting for the “heat sheet.” I wasn’t exactly sure what that was, but it seemed important, so I got in line, too. I found out it told you when your event was, which heat you’d be swimming in, and your assigned lane. That’s when the reality of it all started to sink in. There was my name, IN PRINT, my event, the 100 M Breaststroke, Heat 4, Lane 1, followed by my age and my “seed time” (which I guesstimated during registration.) I was sunk. Literally in over my head. Thrown into the deep end. Out of my depth. The aquatic allusions wouldn’t stop. I had NO business being there.
Without warning, the meet was underway. Whistles blowing, buzzers blaring, fans cheering and swimmers entering and exiting the pool at a steady pace. The minutes and hundredths of seconds on the electronic scoreboard were whizzing by at an alarming rate. Occasionally a name would be called repeatedly, “Mark Thompson, Lane 3.” I quickly did the math and estimated I would be up in six minutes. The likely possibility struck me that I wouldn’t be in the right place at the right time, that I’d miss my race altogether. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. The panic was rising. I had set up my little space behind a lifeguard chair which had been shoved over to the side. My only gear was an extra pair of goggles and a 50-year-old striped beach towel which I had re-hemmed because I loved it so much. No pocket-sized chamois for me.
Now it represented my security blanket. Encouraging texts were pouring in from family and friends. My husband had rallied the troops back home. “Go, Mom!” “Proud of you, Aunt Rosemary!” I thought of the sweet homemade cards from the grandkids in my suitcase. “You’ve got this, Grandma!” No, actually, I don’t. I was blinking back hot tears, heart thundering, ready to bolt for the locker room so I wouldn’t hear my name being called over the loud-speaker as a no-show in Lane 1.
It was then my angel appeared in her monogrammed, waterproof robe. Linda DeSanders, from Dallas, Texas.
“Hi,” said a kind voice. “What event are you swimming in?” Tears brimming, all I could do was clutch the heat sheet and point. “How are you doing?” The floodgates burst and I sobbed like a baby, taking in big, shuddering breaths. “Oh, not so well. What’s your name?” I again pointed, unable to speak. Then with utmost calm she reassured me, “Rosemary, I’m going to stay with you right up until your race. It looks like you’re in Lane 1, so I’ll be able to walk alongside you and shout.” I thought that was odd. “Why will you shout?” I asked, but by then she was gently guiding me to the bulkhead where I would step up to check in with the timekeeper in lane one. “I need a tissue to blow my nose.”
“You have a towel” she explained logically.
To the time keeper she calmly said, “This is Rosemary and this is her very first race.” Then to me, “You’ll want to take off your sweats now. It’s time.”
“Swimmers take your marks…” It was all a blur. It was a cold, exhausting, blur.
I didn’t push off deeply enough. The pull down was okay but I surfaced way too soon. Hips up. Arch the back. Chest down. Knees close. Strong ankle circles. Quick breath, head down. Pull, kick, glide. And then I was aware of Linda’s voice. “PULL! PULL! PULL! You’re doing great, Rosemary!” She walked beside me, up and back four times, shouting encouragement all the way. She kept me focused and reminded me before each of my two-handed turns. By the final 25 meters I knew my form was shot and my muscles were as stiff as chilled cookie dough. I could barely pull through a stroke, but somehow it was over, and I heard the five whistle blasts telling me to exit the pool so the next heat could begin. My name was up on the scoreboard with my final time: 2:51:17. Under three minutes and I hadn’t DQ’d! I was stunned.
Cindy Gilmore was there, too, cheering me on, camera phone in hand, documenting the whole mortifying, humiliating, agonizing race. Two amazing women, who won gold and silver in their own races soon after, had come to my rescue, showing unspeakable kindness, support and encouragement. Incredulously, I won a medal, too. A bronze medal at my very first meet! How was that even possible? I came in third in my age group. Never mind that there were only three of us and I came in a full 40 seconds after the silver medalist! It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. What had just happened?
Three world records were broken this year in the very same pool where I received my initiation. Experts gliding through the same water molecules where I had flailed and gasped as a clumsy novice. What must it feel like to swim so fast? To be a fish?
Intoxicating! Addictive! Ageless! Weightless and wonderful!
The Huntsman World Senior Games of 2021 will be an unforgettable memory for me: the joy and thrill of swimming in such a world-class venue, the incredulity of winning a bronze medal, (ludicrous as the achievement was) but mostly and indelibly, the generosity, the compassion and kindness of two strangers who made it all possible. Thank you, Cindy and Linda, with all my heart.
Originally published in TIMEOUT Magazine, Spring, 2022