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Masters Swimmers Take to The Water For Fitness And Competition

December 3, 1994

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ Bob Puels competed on swim teams in high school and college, then hung up his goggles for a decade.

Now, at age 43, he is a nationally ranked masters swimmer in the breast stroke.

″A lot of people stop when they get out of college because they’ve had enough,″ said Puels of Albany. ″That’s what I did.″

Puels is among some 29,000 people across the country, ranging from college students to centenarians, who have discovered or rediscovered swimming through masters programs at their local pools.

Many love the thrill of competing at local, regional, national and even international meets. Others swim mainly for the health benefits or for the social outlet. Any adult over age 19 qualifies as a masters swimmer.

Unlike most exercise, swimming utilizes both lower and upper body muscles with a low risk of injuries, said Dr. David Costill, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

The buoyancy of water reduces the stress on bones and joints, making swimming an ideal sport for people with orthopedic injuries or arthritis, he said.

Also unlike other sports, masters swimmers - except those who swam at the Olympic level - often achieve faster times in middle age than they did in their 20s.

″I’m nearly 60 years old, and I still swim faster than I did in college,″ said Costill, who is also chairman of the United States Masters Swimming Sports Medicine, Health and Safety Committee. ″Swimming is a very skill- oriented activity, and you can always improve your skill. One of my theories is that people who are older have better mechanics than they did when they were young.″

Masters swimmers compete in 5-year age groups, and their times are compared only to other swimmers in their group. Many people place higher at meets when they first move up to the next age group.

″This is the only place I know of where people are really happy about getting older,″ said 39-year-old USMS Registrar Bill Black.

Puels swam freestyle and the individual medley at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn., in the 1970s. He started swimming the breast stroke four years ago, and two years later he was ranked seventh in the world among masters swimmers in the 50-meter short course breast stroke.

Last summer, he came in first in his age group in the long course 50-meter breast stroke at the national masters meet in Buffalo and in sixth in the same event at the World Masters Swimming Championships in Montreal.

″It’s real exciting to think I’m capable of doing something like this at this stage of my life,″ he said.

Puels, a visiting nurse, swims an average of nearly 2 miles a day, four to seven days a week, depending on whether he’s preparing for a meet. His workouts reflect the knowledge he garnered coaching youth swim teams after college; they are shorter and more focused than his college workouts.

Dan McNeil, 71, of Cortland spent years shuttling his children to swim meets around the country. Then, in his 60s, he decided to try competing himself.

McNeil came in fifth in his age group in the 100-meter long course breast stroke at this year’s national masters championships, and he placed 11th in the 200-meter breast stroke at the world championships.

″Age is not very relevant; there are people who are over 70 years old who swim faster than some of the youngsters,″ McNeil said. ″There is a mutual respect there that’s kind of fun and keeps you interested as you get older.″

″I do it obviously for fitness, and I maintain a pretty good physical level, but I think there’s a dimension to it that’s even more important,″ he said. ″It makes you feel like you’re more a part of the program, part of the mainstream.″

At the other end of the age spectrum, 24-year-old Karen Seyfert says she gains motivation from her twice-a-week coached workouts with the Albany YMCA masters team.

″I could probably go out and swim by myself, but it’s nice having an organized group to go to,″ said the Albany Law School student, who competed in high school, then joined a masters program as an undergraduate at Boston University. ″When you have someone swimming next to you, you just work harder.″

For Seyfert, competition is not a priority; she only participates in one meet per year. She says the health benefits she reaps from the practices will keep her involved in masters wherever she finds a job after earning her law degree next spring.

″I don’t have any natural upper body strength, and swimming has done wonders for me,″ she said. ″It’s toned me up, and it just makes me feel great. There is nothing in this world I enjoy doing more than swimming.″

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