Armed with stopwatches, kickboards and the latest Speedo swim trunks, a growing band of senior citizens rendezvous each morning at swimming pools across America. By churning the once-placid water and contorting themselves into flip turns, they strike at a basic myth about age. Most of us assume that our physical pleasures lessen as our physical abilities decline. It took a brush with death for me to understand that these graying, stooped-over swimmers, including my 72-year-old father, have an elementary lesson to teach us.
Before I reached my teens, my father, then a professor of classics at the University of Wisconsin, had led me through that rite of passage known as introducing a son to sports. On a late Sunday morning in our backyard some 35 years ago, he first wrapped my hands around a bat and tossed soft pitches that I harmlessly flailed at. Nearly a decade later my dad and I would listen to the exploits of the Milwaukee Braves over the radio or visit County Stadium to watch Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Bob (Hurricane) Hazle. And when I began to play Little League ball, my father would sit through the flubs and whiffs of my butterfingered youth.
As I entered high school and college, other activities and people inevitably drew my attention. But while my interest in sports waned, my father's grew stronger and he became a serious swimmer.
In 1972, Masters swimming became affiliated with the Amateur Athletic Union. The AAU believed that many older Americans wanted the fun, exercise and competition that organized swimming affords. The Masters has 14 groups, starting with men and women ages 25 to 29 and ending with swimmers in their 90s.
At 6 a.m., six days a week, for the last 14 years, my father has walked or bicycled to a pool where he swims two miles alongside preteens. Until his retirement in 1982, he strolled over to the University of Wisconsin's pool at lunch hour and swam a third mile; returning to the classroom, he then taught another generation the glories of Odysseus and Horatius.
"My old man needs a hobby now that we've all left home," I'd explain to my bemused friends as I described my father's aquatic achievements. During my 20s, sports meant nothing more to me than a study break from school or an excuse, following an intramural game, to quaff Milwaukee's finest.
Cancer changed my assumptions about Masters swimming, sports and older people. In 1976 I was a 31-year-old graduate student at Harvard when I discovered a lump on my wrist. Not too long after that, while I was in the hospital having it removed, a doctor walked into my room and said, "Herb, I don't want to shock you but you've got a very rare form of fibrosarcoma in your right wrist. There's an 80 percent chance you'll die within the next five years."
The next few months saw me pass through radiation and enter a necessary but painful chemotherapy program which, among other things, caused vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and a pronounced listlessness that marooned me on my living room sofa for endless hours. I felt old, and like many patients I asked what the medical experts could do for me rather than what I could do for myself.
By January of 1977 the pain—both mental and physical—had become overwhelming. One morning after two consecutive chemotherapy treatments I told my doctor, "I just can't take it anymore. I'm quitting the chemo." He cautioned me against such a decision. "You realize what you might be doing?" Stopping the chemotherapy could end my life.
I returned home angry, feeling alone. "I'm a quitter," I decided, "but I can't do any better." Needing to release the tension, I laced up my running shoes and began tearing around Cambridge. Skirting puddles and automobiles, I thought of my father and how he had described the joys and rewards of swimming.
"Swimming is the one sport you can enjoy lying down," he had joked before becoming serious, and observing that although we're all losing the war against time, Masters swimmers enjoy winning some of the skirmishes. In 1976 my father swam about 800 miles, or the approximate distance from New York to Chicago. "None of the old goats like myself were Olympic quality in college." Unlike topflight collegiate swimmers who peak in their 20s, my father and his friends, as he put it, "have just enjoyed getting better as time tries to pass us by"
Also, like Juvenal, who sang the praises of "a sound mind in a sound body," my father believed that his work had benefited from physical activity. "Since I'm healthier than 10 years ago," he said, "I'm more energetic and interested in my teaching." Finally, the gift of example. Fifty years from now, predicted my dad, "My students may not remember their Greek conjugations and Latin verbs, but I will have taught them that swimming and walking are part of everyone's professional equipment."
Now, with my father's encouragement, I finally followed his example. For the second period in my life I adopted athletes as my heroes. But no longer were they home-run hitters or strikeout kings. My current idols were gaunt, balding, stoop-shouldered men who probably never had enjoyed a crowd's applause. But, unlike me, they were wringing from life all the joy and humor they could. They hadn't surrendered.
I canceled my remaining classes for the week and plunged into sports. I was determined to do as much as possible, as quickly as possible. It was important for me to believe that my body was sound. Thinking of my father, I began swimming an hour each day, angrily punching the heavy bag and running six-minute miles. Two weeks after stopping chemotherapy, I was running and swimming farther than I had been before the doctor told me I had cancer. Just as my dad and his aquatic cronies "enjoyed getting better as time tries to pass them by," I, too, was realizing that physical limitations often are a state of mind and that most of us have more control over our lives—and bodies—than we assume.
My early love of sports had returned, but no longer was it the conquering of individuals or teams that excited me. Instead, it was my improved physical fitness that gave me pride. I returned to chemotherapy determined to become completely well.
On Memorial Day of 1977 my brother-in-law and I competed in a world championship, 72-mile, single-day canoe race. All my friends, except my father, implored me not to compete. We finished the race in 12 hours. We did not win. We were lucky to have placed in the top 50%. Yet I was exultant. I had gone beyond my supposed limits. Like my dad, I was winning some of the skirmishes in the war against time. I still am.