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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.