"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.