Liz Hogan competes in the 200-meter individual medley during… (Will Clark, Brooks Institute )
Liz Hogan once quit swimming because it had consumed her life. A former prodigy from Northern California who first competed for a spot on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team at 15, Hogan retired before she turned 20. She had just finished her freshman year at UCLA after narrowly missing a spot on the 1976 Olympic team as well.
The sudden death of her older brother Ted from a previously undetected heart condition known as cardiomyopathy and her own bout with diverticulitis contributed to Hogan's losing her zeal for a sport she had competed in since age 6. But the years of spending hours underwater also had taken their toll emotionally and physically.
“I just wanted to do something different,” she said recently. “It had been my whole life.”
It took more than 30 years and rehabilitation from injuries she suffered in a near-fatal car accident in 2004 in Florida to bring Hogan, a physical scientist for the Navy, back to swimming. Briefly ranked first in the United States and second in the world in two events as a teenager, Hogan is again considered among the most dominant swimmers in her age group.
Now 56, Hogan is among a half-dozen members of the Anne Arundel Amphibians and more than 100 Marylanders competing in Cleveland this week in the National Senior Games. She won 12 gold medals in 18events in her first three National Senior Games and has set five records in the biennial competition since turning 50 — the minimum age for competition. She added to her medal haul by winning the 100-meter butterfly Saturday and finished fourth in the 200 individual medley.
“I'm just so happy that I can do it,” Hogan said. “I love it right now because I'm doing exactly what I need in my life. I need a specific goal, but I don't get upset not going as fast as I used to. The fact that I'm faster at [nearly] 57 than I was at 49 is awesome to me. My goal is to see how good I can get.”
Hogan — whose injuries in the Florida crash included breaking her hip, pelvis, femur and both wrists and dislocating her left ankle — credits the Annapolis swim club and its longtime coach, Rand Vaillancourt, for helping her renew her love for the sport. Hogan didn't tell Vaillancourt about her previous swimming career when she first showed up several months after the accident.
“I came in on a cane that time — he was a little bit worried,” Hogan said, recalling their initial meeting. “What's great about his team is he'll take all levels of swimmers as long as you can swim two lengths [of the pool], and then he'll work with you to make you a better swimmer. I got in the water and he said, ‘You know how to swim, don't you?'”
Hogan said she waited a few weeks to tell him about her experience because of the mixed feelings she still had about swimming.
“I just wanted to work myself into it and see if I wanted to do it again,” she said. “Once I got in with a team again — and a team with all different types of athletes who support one another and work hard together — it was great.
“I love helping people with their strokes. I love the teaching part. And I love being pushed — that's what I needed. I couldn't do it just for myself. I needed to do it for a team. It really brought the drive back.”
Vaillancourt, who has coached at the Arundel Olympic Swim Center for 17 years, quickly moved Hogan to what she called “the fast lane.”
“She was pretty special from the beginning,” Vaillancourt said. “She's a great motivator. She takes the time to help others, which I encourage. She has a unique point of view because she's been to the top of the mountain.”
Keith Lucas, Hogan's husband, said she hid her swimming history from him initially, too. They met playing volleyball more than 25 years ago when they were both working in Delaware.
“She has a couple of cases of medals that I never saw because she had them in the attic of her house,” Lucas said. “She has things like the pewter vase she got in Moscow for winning her events there. I knew she was a good swimmer. But I never saw her swim until after the accident. I tried to encourage her a few times, but she really had no interest before [the accident].”
Lucas, who works as an engineer for the Navy, said swimming helped speed his wife's rehabilitation and allowed her to return to an active life professionally and personally.
“I think it focused her on recovery,” Lucas said. “She enjoyed the rehab because she got to work with other people and help them, too. When I put her in the pool, she knew she had to do it competitively. She couldn't just wallow in the water. From years of training, she understands what she needs to do to get better. And she helps the others because they see her work so hard.”