By: Craig Walker
Courtesy of the National Senior Games.
Just three weeks before citizens in California were ordered to self-isolate, we were in Florida participating in the Polk Senior Games. It was a beautiful, sunny, and warm Florida morning as we made our way to the swimming pool, where I had signed up for six events.
In Senior Games, I compete against men in my own age group, ages 80-84. For a few wonderful hours, I forgot that I was an old man with a variety of aches, pains, and medical conditions. It was like rolling back the hands of time. Just a few days before we left for Florida, I had managed to pull a muscle in my back and I was unable to bend over. I could not go off the blocks but had to start in the water.
When they called the 50-yard freestyle, I jumped into lane four and held on to the wall, awaiting the start. I was seeded second out of five competitors. The guy in lane five was also 80, had a faster seed time, and was starting from the blocks. I was really going to have to move to beat him. I hoped that I could do it, but that was all I had. Now I learned years ago in my military officers’ training that hope is not a plan. Sure, that is correct, but hope can be a driving force used to overcome the obstacles of life.
Towering over me and high on the blocks, my competition was poised to unwind like a spring, while I could only push off gingerly from the wall, not too hard—I needed my back to last. What did it matter if he beat me? This was all about fun and trying to win a gold medal when you are an old man.
The starting buzzer went off and I was immediately confronted with a tidal wave of Biblical proportions as all 240 pounds of him came down right next to me. When I could see again, he was half a body length ahead of me. I hoped that I could make up this distance, and make up the distance I did.
We were now swimming head to head. One thing that you need to know about senior swim meets is that they are kind of boring. Lots of people spread out all over the lanes with little excitement. But once in a while, two swimmers will be evenly matched and will fight it out, head to head, stroke for stroke, pounding their way to the finish line with as much urgency as any Olympic swimmer.
That’s exactly what was happening, causing undue excitement among the spectators. The oldsters jumped to their feet, shook their canes in the air and roared their approval. A crowd of gray-haired admirers lined the edge of the pool and shouted encouragement as two 80-year-olds thundered down the lanes, each trying to beat the other.
Everything was going fine from my perspective. I was surprised at myself for keeping up with him. But then I realized that I was literally going to hit the wall. Because of my back, I would be unable to flip my turn and that would cost me about half a body length. It did. Now I was looking at his belly button when I turned my head to breathe, instead of at his head.
The 50-yard freestyle is a very quick race. It’s down and back in less than a minute. So, I had less than half a minute to do something. I immediately employed the method taught me by my world-class coach Jason Bradbury. When faced with having to go all out, the tendency is to tighten up causing the swimmer to slow down. I did the opposite. I lengthened my stroke and increased my kicking cadence. The noise of the crowd even came through my earplugs. I slowly gained until we were even. Some of the seniors were going into apoplexy. Then after just a few final strokes and a lunge for the timing pad, it was over. I looked up at the scoreboard. Lane four out-touched lane five by less than a second. I won. I could have raised my fist in triumph, but I reached over, took his hand and we raised them both together in victory and hope. This was victory over the aging of our bodies and it gave us hope for the future.
In our present health crisis, we need hope. Yes, planning is paramount, but let us not leave out hope. Hope was the driving force that got people through the 1918 pandemic when 650,000 Americans died. Hope was the force that Americans used in World War II when they had to turn the tide of battle in Europe and the Pacific at the same time. Nothing has changed. We will survive this crisis. We will celebrate growing old. We will continue to experience that life is good. Hope will carry us through.