Swimming Spirit

Did the Olympics get you excited to get back in the swimming pool? Women who return to the pool as adults reflect on the emotional and physical benefits of the sport.

By Diana Price

As Louise Cady-Fernandes approached her fiftieth birthday, the former high school and college swimming star had a goal: get back to the pool. Having largely left the lap lanes behind as she raised her two daughters and developed her career as a knitwear designer, the Lexington, Massachusetts, resident felt a growing desire to return to her athletic roots. “I honestly was just curious to see how fast I could swim at age 50 and what it would feel like to get back in the pool again after almost 30 years,” Louise says. “When I turned 40, I said that when I turned 50 I would swim again. I knew that it would be a time in my life when our kids would be starting to head off to college and I would have more time.”

Louise followed through with her goal, and now, at 50, she swims three days a week with a masters swim team and is racing regularly. Having once held the New York State record for the 50-yard freestyle as a high school swimmer, she is focused on excelling in the event again in her current age group. But beyond the renewed competitive drive fueling her fire, Louise is inspired by the idea of maintaining overall wellness and fitness as she ages. “I hope to be an athlete, in some measure, for the rest of my life,” she says. “I hope to be always moving, like my mom, who is almost 90.”

Benefits of Swimming

As Louise knows well, swimming is an excellent, low-impact exercise that can help women maintain fitness throughout their lives. John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, says that the benefits of swimming are clear. “Swimming is an aerobic, heart-enhancing form of exercise,” he says, and because it’s low impact, it is “hard to overdo—the water simply won’t let you work too hard.” In addition, John says, the motions involved “put limited stress on shoulder joints, depending on the amount of swimming a person does; and because there are minimal effects of gravity on your bones and joints, it’s simply pretty hard to get hurt.”

Though Louise says she has maintained a fairly good level of fitness over the years through regular running, she has noticed a definite difference in fitness level and muscle tone since she started swimming again. “My arms are nice and toned again,” she says. “And swimming has stretched me out. I measured 5 feet 10 inches at my last doctor’s appointment, which is what I used to measure in college. I had been measuring 5 feet 9 inches to 9.5 inches in recent years. Generally, I am just in better overall shape.”

Kristy Heitzman, a masters swimmer from Hailey, Idaho, who returned to the sport in her thirties after competing through her teens, agrees that the physical impact of the workout is impressive, citing increased muscle and joint strength. But Kristy says that perhaps even more rewarding than the physical result is the emotional response that swimming elicits: “I love swimming, and I look forward to my time in the pool. It is my ‘me time.’ It gives me a chance to do something I love; it gives me a sense of accomplishment; and, according to my husband, it makes me a better mom and wife and an overall happier person. He can always tell if I got my workout in—I smile much more.”

Louise echoes Kristy’s thoughts about the sense of accomplishment and balance that swimming provides. “I think swimming again has made me more confident,” she says. “I think the confidence comes from doing something that I was a little afraid to do again. Anytime I do something I am afraid to do, it makes me feel good when it’s done. And I think swimming makes me more calm.”

Getting Started

Whether you’re returning to the sport after an extended hiatus or are just beginning to swim, John Leonard says there are some basic tips that can enhance your experience:

  • Get the all-clear. If you’re diving in after little or no physical activity, visit your doctor and discuss your goals and your current physical condition.
  • Join the club. Consider looking into an organized program, which can offer instruction, companionship, and incentive to stick with your plan.
  • Ease into it. Start your swimming workouts slowly. “Eight laps of a 25-yard pool is a very nice first-day workout,” John says. “Take your time, and progress by adding less than 10 percent volume of training each week.”
  • Get a helping hand—or foot. If you don’t have much experience and are moving slowly, try wearing small swim fins. With the help of the fins, John says, “you’ll feel marvelous and will still be getting great exercise”—though he cautions that fins can cause muscle cramping if you start too hard.
  • Honor your current abilities. If you’re returning to swimming after a past as a competitor, be gentle with yourself. “Don’t measure yourself by your old expectations,” he says. Start slowly; progress slowly; don’t push too hard for a matter of months, not days; and get fit first, then consider competing.”
  • Check your ego at the door. “Ferociousness is no longer considered a social attribute in masters swimming,” John says. “Swim with your competitors, not against them. If you have a need to conquer someone else, leave it at the pool door—it won’t be popular or acceptable behavior.”
  • Have fun! Be sure to pause when you need a break. “Stop and chat a bit with someone,” John says. “Enjoy it.”

Dive In!

So grab a pair of goggles and a comfortable suit and give swimming a try—chances are you’ll reap physical and emotional rewards. “Swimming is a fountain of youth,” John says. “You get to feel like a teenager again but with a lot more wisdom about the ‘fit mind in a fit body’ concept that you likely heard about but didn’t much appreciate when you were younger.”

The Revelation Project

The photos of Louise Cady-Fernandes gracing these pages are the product of a unique project developed by photographers Monica Rodgers and Robyn Ivy to utilize photography and social media to help women recognize anew their inner and outer beauty.

Participants in The Revelation Project take part in a photo session and subsequently share their photos and their thoughts about the experience via social media. “Some people call it photo therapy,” Monica says, “but I don’t really think it is. It’s therapeutic, but something much bigger happens: the process creates an opportunity for acceptance and rebirth and offers women permission to be beautiful, amazing, and powerful as they redefine themselves as women in the world.”

For more information about The Revelation Project, visit www.facebook.com/pages/The-Revelation-Project/157836510941064

Swimming—and Aging—Gracefully

As Louise Cady-Fernandes embraces the joy and the physical rewards of her swimming renaissance, she says that her return to the pool is part of a broader effort to truly revel in all that she loves in this phase of her life. And she hopes to encourage other women to similarly pursue a spirited and full life as they age.

To that end Louise has created a blog, Lines of Beauty, which she says is meant to nurture a conversation about embracing aging instead of dreading it. “So many people fear the aging process and worry about getting older and wrinkly,” she says. “I don’t feel this way. I think older people are so beautiful. It’s an honor to grow older, and people forget this.”

Having observed several family members age into their late nineties—and one to the remarkable age of 101—Louise says the “physical, mental, and emotional beauty of their lives” is inspiring. Her experiences compelled her to share the remarkable opportunities and joys of aging with other women who, she feels, are being fed unhealthy messages in the media. Louise hopes the blog and the community it creates will support a more accepting attitude about growing old.

For more information or to join the conversation, visit www.linesofbeauty.com.