The fountain of her youth

Passion: At 80, an Ellicott City swimmer is winning races, breaking records and turning heads. But never mind that. She's happy to just be in the pool.

July 18, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Doris Russell swims for the pure joy of feeling cool water rush past her 80-year-old skin.

She competes because she can.

She wins because she's good. Very good.

At the YMCA National Meet in Georgia in May, the Ellicott City resident placed first in each of her 10 events and broke six national records for her age group.

She set two of the records as a member of relay teams. Her individual record-breaking times were 44.58 seconds for the 50-yard freestyle; 11 minutes, 3.64 seconds for the 500-yard freestyle; 56.13 seconds for the 50-yard butterfly; and 2 minutes, 16.89 seconds for the 100-yard butterfly.

To put that in perspective: Russell could easily compete with people 20 years her junior, said Nancy Brown, the founder of and a coach for Russell's swim team.

Next month, Russell will vie against records at a national meet in Baltimore County.

"It's amazing," said Gloria Summers, the national meet coordinator for the YMCA's competitive swimming and diving program. "I'm 71 years old, and I know I couldn't do it."

But Russell is modest about her achievements, even poking a little fun at herself. "I think I swim faster than I can walk now," she said jokingly.

She competes nationwide in the 80- to 84-year-old age group with the Maryland Masters, a team for swimmers 19 and older. After her stellar performance at the YMCA National Meet, the Masters named her one of the two most outstanding female swimmers at the competition.

It wasn't Russell's first experience breaking records, but don't ask how many she holds. She's lost track.

That's not the point, anyway, as far as she's concerned. The point is swimming. She thinks everyone should do it, and she tries to convince all acquaintances that this is the sport to take up for life.

"Water does something special to body and mind," she said, sitting in the Columbia Swim Center's lobby. "It keeps you young."

Russell started young, practicing at the Baltimore Athletic Club on Saturdays, entering competitions once she turned 14 - and meeting her husband-to-be, Jim, at one event. He was a diver.

For 25 years, she competed. Then she only took her children, all eight, to their meets.

But Russell never stopped swimming. In 1988, five years after her husband died, she heard about the Senior Olympics and figured: Why not?

"I thought it could be a challenge, and I like challenges," she said.

Now the living room in Russell's Ellicott City house - the one she bought 33 years ago because it was near a pool - is filled with trophies and medals.

Demanding workout

Russell's regimen is uncomplicated but demanding. Three or four times a week, she swims at least three-quarters of a mile - or 53 laps.

"The next day, you'll feel it," she said. "I'll feel a little sore."

But the day after that, she's ready to go back.

She practices at Columbia Swim Center and North St. Johns Swim and Tennis Club, which is a half-mile from her house.

If Russell feels good, she swims a full mile, getting there with some freestyle, some butterfly and some backstroke.

But no breast stroke - doctor's orders. The out-and-in motions it requires of the legs aren't a good idea for someone who has had knee surgery.

Her 5-foot-2 1/2 -inch body has other ailments, too: She's had varicose veins since age 28 - "the worst the doctor had ever seen" - and her hearing hasn't been good for years.

She wears two hearing aids, although never in the water. (The electronic beep that signals the start of a race is loud enough.)

When Russell flips through photographs of meets, swimmers and relatives, her hands shake.

But she is strong. And she is healthy, free of the diabetes that runs in her family.

"I swear it's the swimming," she said.

Her second-oldest child, Jim, who swam competitively through college, said Russell's stamina is "remarkable." It's not just swimming: She competes in bridge games fives times a week, plays the piano, goes to daily Mass at the Church of the Resurrection and cooks Christmas dinner for the family.

"You have to make a reservation to see her, she's so busy," her son said.

One recent day, Russell slipped into warmer-than-she-cares-for water at Columbia Swim Center - she likes it cold and invigorating - for one of her regular practices. Wearing goggles, a rubber swim cap and a black suit, she sliced through the water with smooth, even strokes.

She loves the rhythm of butterfly, a stroke she learned 10 years ago that is known for its difficulty.

"I can swim 100 yards now," she said. "Fifty, I can do pretty fast. It's just pacing yourself on that hundred."

Now Russell is preparing for next month's national invitational at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

That training - counting since her last competition in May - will add up to about 40 miles of swimming. After all, who knows what sort of 80- to 84-year-olds she will be up against?

"There's advanced old ladies who still swim; there's competition," Russell said, grinning. "It'll be a challenge in August."

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