THE VILLAGES, Fla.___I was reading a scientific study on rats swimming.
No, I mean it. I really was going over this research paper.
Scientists trained these rats to swim 60 minutes a day, five days a week. Then they put the vermin in a maze in the water and had them swim some more.
The rats got smarter, so said the scientists.
They—the rats, not the scientists—made fewer errors finding their way around the maze. The researchers were convinced swimming improved the cognitive function of the rats.
Well, I don’t need any stinking rats to tell me swimming is a big deal when it comes to mental acuity.
I have John Cornell, 94, Gordon Ralph, 90, and Joe Neal, 79. They are decidedly not self-serious, so I’m pretty sure these guys are tickled I equated them to lab animals. Their sense of humor is intact, their cognitive function seems keen to me, and I’m going to say right now it is because of swimming.
The three pals were sitting at an outside table at a Dunkin Donuts here on a sunny morning and talked to me about the utility of swimming as Geezer Jocks.
What follows are not feel-good distortions.
First, know that Cornell’s doc told him his heart and lungs are doing just fine and he can thank three days of swimming a week for that. There are some infirmities that come with being 94 years old, like loss of hearing, and numb fingers from carpal tunnel, but his ticker ticks and Aqualung John, who swam for the University of Florida a few years ago, can still take deep enough breaths that his brain gets oxygen.
John took a fist and tapped the side of his head and smiled. He said his mind will go first before the heart and lungs but, for now, he’s all here. He thanks swimming and, remarkably, will compete in the 95-99 division of the National Senior Games in May in Ft. Lauderdale.
Joe Neal, 79, had a stroke last August and is recovering. He is an open-water swimmer, once going seven miles through the waves. He’s been in the waters of the Gulf and Atlantic, and swam off the coast of Ireland, and in The Dardanelles, and elsewhere.
Joe, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1964, will tell you that swimming and physical fitness lessened the debilitating effects of that stroke.
His voice booms and he still looks ramrod straight like a Navy man.
Gordon Ralph, 90, swims, too, and it’s been a long time since he studied at an elite school, the University of Chicago, but you can’t leave him behind in a conversation. He holds a college swimming record that is 71 years old and while he has lost some of his voice because reflux is burning the ends of his vocal chords, he swims enough that he will enter six events at The National Senior Games in May.
There is nothing bitter, or morose, or “I’m-too-old” coming out of the mouths of these guys. Their sense of humor is a clear sign their heads are still in the game.
Go ahead and ask Joe Neal a question to test his acuity. Really, ask him anything.
Before I can finish, Joe says, “Beat Army.”
“If we didn’t know the answer to a question at the Naval Academy,” Neal said, “we said ‘Beat Army’.” Still a wise guy plebe after 62 years.
Gordon graduated from college at 19 and received a law degree at 22. He didn’t take a spec of math in college, yet still made a living in the life insurance industry, an industry based on actuarial tables, which is a lot of math.
What would the underwriters say about you, Gordon?
“I’m on borrowed time,” he quips.
Cornell went to the doctor recently. It was a quick in-and-out and the doctor told John he would live to be 100, which is six years away.
“I don’t know if I’m looking forward to that,” he said. Joe and Gordon chuckled right along with him.
Joe Neal can get out of his chair without using the arm rests to heft himself up. He can see the top of his belt buckle. Before the stroke, he did triathlons and gets a kick out of people telling him he looks fit.
Joe is restricted from the ocean because a dermatologist had to do some skin work on him, so he woke up the other morning and turned on the TV. He found a show on swimming and was happy with that.
Joe touched the back of his neck where the skin work was done. Yep, he’s a swimmer alright; the place on the body exposed to the sun in the water.
Gordon likes swimming, too, but he is a touch more specific about what he likes.
“I like gold,” he said. He wasn’t talking about where to stash his wealth.
“I like gold, the medals. I got six golds last December in Ft. Lauderdale,” he said of the state Senior Games.
After college, Gordon gave up swimming until his early 40s. He decided to take up the sport again so he entered a Masters meet in Wisconsin, where he was raised.
“I won all the medals at the meet,” he said. “I said to myself ‘this is boring’ and I gave it up. I took 50 years off.”
When Gordon moved to The Villages in 2006 he started swimming competitively again. And started winning again. There are about 100 pools in The Villages so it’s convenient for training.
“Who is your competition?”, I ask Gordon.
“You’re looking at him,” Cornell says from across the table.
None of these men seems haunted by being older, but neither are they under illusions about their mortality.
“The one thing that I really miss is that everyone that I used to know in high school and college, they’re gone,” Cornell said. “I find out quite often, like this, ‘Oh, John, he passed away so many years ago’. Even up in Gainesville where I went to the university, I’ve checked a couple of times and I hear ‘Oh, John, that’s a long time ago, he passed away’.”
The anxiety of friends from his college days being gone does not keep Cornell in a gloomy mood, or afraid to come out of the house. Besides, his three workouts a week, Cornell relishes the trips to Gainesville for Gator Club meetings.
“That’s my contact point, being a swimmer. I was at the Gator Club meeting last night and I was recognized by the group. Swimming is my connection. It makes me feel wonderful,” John said. “They had a band there and I can get up and march around the room with them when the band plays.”
These three guys have swam into life’s icebergs. It’s hard to sink them. They know what invigorates them and gives them purpose. It’s the swimming.
The rats probably feel the same way.