Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Their Real Opponent

The winner of five gold medals
Even discounting the age differences it would not be hard to tell the Senior Olympics in which my father was competing from the Olympics that we watch every four years. There is the crowd, for example, which comprises a handful of spouses and adult children of the competitors rather than a world-wide television audience.

And there are the body markings. Unlike their younger counterparts these swimmers are not tattoed with sharks or Olympic rings or inspirational phrases. Their markings have come from lifetimes of wearing their bodies: At least half of the men bear a thin white line down the center of their chests where their sternums were split for open heart surgery. (My father acquired his scar in 1996.) Others have curving lines where knees were replaced, and one man's stomach obviously has been opened for some kind of repair.

The freestyle was one of the five races in which my father competed, and in this race was a man who was shaped just like Michael Phelps will be shaped when he is 60 years old. A head taller than anyone else, with long arms and broad shoulders, and a nose that plows through the water like a rudder. I learned later than he is the national age-group champion in several of the events, and he conducted himself like a champion--he blasted off the starting platform and didn't come up for air until he was halfway down the 25-meter lane. He finished the 50-yard race in something like 32 seconds.

My 86-year-old dad, on the other hand, starts the race in the water, pushing off from the side of the pool. He breathes with every stroke and his finishing time is somewhere around 1 minute 20 seconds.

But Dad wasn't racing the younger, taller guy. He was racing time. The doctor had told him, back in 1996, that he would need to exercise to overcome his genetic predisposition that had led to quintuple bypass and that if he wanted to extend his lifespan he would need to be conscientious about this commitment. So every day, in a community pool for which he helped raise the funds, my father goes through his five races. The 50-yard freestyle. The 100-yard freestyle. The 50-yard breast stroke. The 50-yard backstroke. The 100-yard backstroke. It is hard work; he has never been able to float so if he stops moving forward he sinks like a rock.

Yesterday, I called these senior Olympians valiant liars for their insistence that they are just doing this for fun. In one way they are, because without exception are all competitive enough that winning is fun for them. But they're also doing this because they are racing the clock and when they climb out of the pool to the dry towel that's waiting, they have beaten more than the competitors in the surrounding lanes.

They've beaten the years and the creaky bodies that don't always cooperate, and the crowds are applauding this accomplishment as much as they are marveling at the five gold medals in five races.

They are winners, and they are awesome.

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