Winning strokes

NEIGHBORS

Senior racks up swimming awards, awaits induction into Md. hall of fame

June 13, 2008|By JANENE HOLZBERG

The newsprint is creased and brittle, but considering it's nearly 50 years old, it's in good condition.

Portrayed in swimsuits on the Aug. 23, 1959, cover of The Sun Magazine are the nine members of the Russell family, then a well-known swimming clan from Forest Hills in West Baltimore.

Standing next to their parents, the seven children are lined up by age, their heads forming a slight slope from oldest to youngest. The eighth sibling, Larry, was yet to be born. The inside pages of the sepia-tone presentation feature more family photographs, including one of the patriarch, Jim Russell, executing the precision swan dive for which he was ranked nationally.

Today, Doris Russell, the mother, still revels in the memories of that time long ago. But thinking about her family's prowess in the pool is more than nostalgia for the Ellicott City resident.

Russell, 88, earned six gold medals in swimming at the YMCA Masters National Championship held May 15-18 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Shortly after that event, she was informed that she had been selected for induction into the Maryland Senior Olympics Hall of Fame.

Bob Eikenberg, immediate past chairman and Hall of Fame member, said Russell and five other seniors will be honored at this year's state games, which begin in September at sites around Central Maryland and are expected to draw about 1,500 participants. About a quarter-million seniors participate nationwide at the regional and state levels, and about 12,000 attend the Summer National Senior Games, he said.

"People are chosen for induction for far more than their athletic ability, though that's very important," Eikenberg said. "Longevity is a big thing we look for, as is volunteer work."

Other inductees this year are Helen Schley of Frederick County, Tom Page and Larry Colbert of Prince George's County, and Jim Condell of Montgomery County, all track and field athletes; and Hilda Anderson of Baltimore County, an administrator.

The 5-foot-2 Russell has participated in the state games for 20 years, starting a few years after her husband died in 1983. She has been swimming for the Maryland Masters Swim Team, based at the Severna Park Unity Center, since 1974.

"Doris loves competition - she's our role model," said team coach Nancy Brown of Pasadena, 72, who has also been with the team for 34 years. "When she dives into the water, she's like a dolphin. We just marvel at her."

Russell has excelled in freestyle swimming since she was 14, she said, and four of her recent medals are in that event. But another stroke has become her favorite.

One afternoon a few years ago, Russell told her lifeguard friends at the Columbia Swim Center, where she practices two or three times a week, that she was going to try something new. She asked them to watch and critique her form.

"They called out to me, 'Ms. Russell, you got it, you got it!'" she said. "That was my first attempt at the butterfly stroke. I was 70 years old."

While she might be a latecomer to a stroke that is famously difficult to master, the Catonsville native won two more medals last month in the "fly," as it is known. She holds YMCA national records in the 50-yard and 100-yard butterfly.

Russell met her husband at a college swim meet at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington.

They were married in 1942, and their first child was born about two years later.

In 1966, the Russells moved with their five youngest children to a neighborhood off St. Johns Lane, where Doris lives today with one of her sons. The living room of her ranch-style home is filled with butterfly collectibles - small porcelain sculptures under glass domes, a Monarch pillow on a rocking chair, even a straw hat decorated with small butterflies and flowers.

She drives herself to daily Mass at the Church of the Resurrection and three times a week to the Columbia Swim Center in Wilde Lake, where she swims 50 lengths of the pool, roughly three-quarters of a mile.

"There are days when I don't really feel like it, but I just make myself do it," she said. "God helps those who help themselves."

Russell acknowledges having little patience with seniors who choose to stay home and become inactive.

Some women don't want to get their styled hair wet, she said, rolling her eyes at the thought.

"They should just have swimming pool hair like I do," she said. "Swimming is such a terrific sport. It keeps you healthy and it keeps you young."

Brown agreed.

"As long as I can swim, I plan to work with this team," Brown said. "It's a passion for all of us."

Russell said her shoulder muscles are as strong as her legs are weak, so swimming has become an equalizer as she ages.

"My arms basically pull me along in the water," she said. "The butterfly is just so ... neat!"

She rhapsodized about the movements that comprise the butterfly.

"When I start, I'm somewhat stiff. But once I get in the groove, I hate to get out of the pool," she said.

She added that she'd love to have a lap pool in the backyard of her half-acre lot for when the time comes that she stops driving.

"People ask me if I do water aerobics in the water," Russell said. "I just say, 'Boring! Of course I don't - I just swim.'"

Neighbors

Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg wants to know about it. E-mail Janene at jholzberg76@msn.com, or call 410-461-4150.

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