A few blocks west of Times Square, at the Manhattan Plaza Swim and Health Club, Sol Stern, a 45-year-old freelance writer, has in two years undergone what sounds like an extraordinary transformation. "I used to be a melon," says Stern. "Now I'm a banana." What he means is that he used to be a Melon and now he's a Banana; that is, among the Masters swimmers who work out at the Plaza pool, Stern has moved up from the slower to the faster of two training groups. He has also been moved to write a story for this week's issue—it begins on page 34—about the phenomenon of Masters swimming, which has brought a number of Olympians out of retirement and back into serious, high-level competition in age groups starting at 25-29 and ending at 85 and up.
Actually, Stern's improvement has been even more dramatic than his becoming a Banana might make it seem. Though a better than average backstroker at New York's City College in the 1950s, he hadn't swum much for 22 years when, to lose weight, he returned to the pool in 1979. "I soon found out that the guys I was doing laps with were into the Masters meets," he says. "They kept urging me to join them, but I thought I'd embarrass myself."
Hardly. At the Eastern Regional Masters Championships in New Jersey in May, only six months after he resumed competitive swimming. Stern won gold medals in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard backstroke and the 50 butterfly. "It was thrilling," he says. "I mean, they gave us real gold medals. I hung mine around my neck and thought of that picture of Mark Spitz at the Olympics." Later that month Stern went to the 1981 short-course nationals in Irvine, Calif., where he finished ninth in the 45-49 age-group 200 backstroke—and did much of the interviewing for this week's story. He approaches competition with such fervor that he now swims an average of 3,000 yards a day six days a week. "I'm training much harder than I ever did in college," says Stern, adding that he has shed 15 pounds "without a bit of dieting."
Stern's journalistic career began in 1965, when he abandoned his doctoral studies in political science and began writing for Ramparts, the now-defunct monthly known for its political muckraking. Since then, he has been published in The New York Times and its Sunday magazine, The New Republic and New Statesman, among other publications. "I've written about the CIA, Vietnam, the black movement, the Middle East," says Stern, "but sports are more fun. They're almost always upbeat, and the people involved in them are more accessible.
"The short-course nationals were just a big, happy event, like a family picnic, with lots of kids on hand to watch and adults sitting around on blankets waiting to swim. Though the competitors take it seriously, there are no people smashing their fists against lockers after they lose. I can't remember hearing an angry word the entire time."
Stern's goal for the '82 nationals is to do what some of his competitors did this year: swim the fastest times of their lives. "My best time in the 100 back was 1:07.6. in 1957, and the best I did this year was 1:13.6," says Stern. "But I have a feeling if I swam in a race right now I'd do 1:10, and I think I'm going to start next season under 1:10." At the rate he's going, Stern might even become top Banana.