Longwood is home to a remarkable team of competitive swimmers who range in age from the late 60s to the late 90s!
The glistening pool at a senior-living community in Longwood had just reopened after months of renovations, and that gave Helen Fisher an idea. She met with the community’s director of lifestyle, and they decided to start a swimming team.
“I thought that would be fun,” says Helen, a former competitive swimmer and coach who teaches a variety of fitness and movement classes for residents of the community. “It would be something different.”
Helen did some research and took the necessary steps to form an official team through the U.S. Masters Swimming organization. With an enthusiastic group of four swimmers, age 69 to 97, Helen started holding practices twice a week. She then decided to find a nearby swim meet so her team members could get a taste of competition.
And that’s how Helen came across the 11th annual Rowdy Gaines Masters Classic, which was held at the YMCA Aquatic Center in Orlando this past October. The international meet, started by the Olympic gold medalist and Lake Mary resident, annually attracts hundreds of swimmers, age 25 and older.
“That meet was the closest one,” says Helen, who lives in Lake Mary. “I didn’t realize that it was probably the biggest Masters swim meet there is. People came there from all over the world.”
Not to be intimidated, Helen’s team of swimmers showed up at the Rowdy Gaines Masters Classic and came back with several medals and ribbons, as well as the experience of a lifetime.
“Every person did the best they could do, and they were all pleased with the outcome,” Helen says. “I was so proud of how well they did for their first meet.”
Robert Geller, a retired accountant who turned 97 in July, was the oldest competitor among the 400 or so swimmers at the meet. He took home a silver medal for finishing second in the 25-meter freestyle.
“I was never involved in any swimming competition, ever,” says Robert, a Brooklyn native who exercises five times a week. “All I wanted to do was join our local team with these lovely ladies, and next thing I know, unbeknownst to me, I’m catapulted into this international swim meet. I never considered myself a swimmer, and I still don’t. But, at my age, to have been able to swim that length and complete it – that was an accomplishment!”
Other members of the team were Jean Walker (85), Sharon “Sam” Peck (74), and Deborah Rudisill (69). Helen (67) also competed, taking fourth place in the 100-meter breaststroke in the 65-69 age group.
Jean won a silver medal in the 25-meter freestyle and was the only woman in her 85-89 age group to compete in the individual medley, which features all four strokes: butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke, and freestyle. Sam won the silver medal in the 50 breast in the 70-74 age group, and Deborah took home two ribbons for finishing eighth in both the 25 and 50 free in the 65-69 age group.
For Jean, the competition was a long time coming. Growing up in Flushing, New York, there were no opportunities for girls to compete in sports. She went on to graduate from New York University and taught physical education at the University of Illinois and Wayne State University. She also taught swimming to special-needs children as well as her own children and the neighborhood kids.
“I never envisioned myself being in the middle of such a high-end meet,” Jean says. “It was fun, and the enthusiasm from Helen sort of carried us all. I didn’t want to let my team down.”
Sam, who grew up in Florida, says she also had few athletic opportunities when she was a young girl, but she loved the outdoors. She enjoyed horseback riding and was a cheerleader in high school. Sam’s first taste of competition was when she took the Presidential Physical Fitness Test as a high schooler.
“I just like adventure,” says Sam, who has run three 5K (3.1-mile) races in the last several years. “I like to learn new things, and I like being physically active – within my limits.”
Deborah grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and competed in sports like field hockey and archery at her all-girls’ school. She learned how to swim as a young girl, but says it’s been more than 50 years since she swam laps in a pool.
“I know I still have a lot to learn,” Deborah says. “But, I figure, I got eighth-place ribbons for my first swim meet at age 69. That’s an OK place to start.”
The team is already looking forward to its next meet on February 29 in Clearwater.
“I’m so glad we were able to make this happen,” Helen says. “It took a lot of dedication, a lot of commitment, a lot of enthusiasm, and a lot of support from everybody. It was very much a community effort.”
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