What Comes After 50? Nationals.

By Jacqueline Knox – August 1, 2021

During the hot Texas summer, swimming is on everyone’s mind. One step outside and you are aching to take a leisurely dip in a nearby body of water for some cooling relief. But for this group of masters swimmers, swimming is on their mind year round. 

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6:00 a.m., YMCA TownLake opens up in the early morning, and the masters swim class comes in with a smile to get in their workouts for the day. 

“Day after day, yard after yard, these swimmers put in the work, and it shows,” says Jessie Edwards, their coach. 

For some, swimming is an old love that they are reigniting, but for others, it is a newfound love. 

Elise Ragland (71) has been around swim teams her entire life. She even served as the assistant coach for the University of Oregon women’s swim team at one point. Last competing in 1972, Ragland returned from her 30-year hiatus in 2002 and has been competing ever since. She now holds multiple records that she plans on continuing to break. 

“Swimming is something that you can just do forever,” Cameron Riffe (34) explains. A longtime swimmer herself, she loves the energy that swimming brings and says there is nothing like it. 

Meanwhile, other swimmers such as Bart Jennings (62) have recently started the sport. Jennings took up swimming after noticing how running was affecting his knees and joints. After a few private lessons with Edwards, Jennings was convinced to join the masters group and has loved it ever since. 

In addition to his joints feeling better, Jennings has also noticed improvement in his cardiovascular function. Previously having undergone a cardiac ablation procedure, Jennings was dealing with arrhythmias and other heart issues when he began swimming later in life. 

“Jessie has brought me up to another level of exercise,” Jennings says. “I haven’t had any heart issues at all and it has all stabilized.” 

Especially for older people, running and walking can create a lot of stress on joints, making it difficult to participate in that form of exercise consistently. Swimming, however, puts very little stress on one’s joints because of a hydrostatic pressure and still provides adequate exercise. 

“It really is an ideal form of exercise to recommend to the general public,” says Dr. Hirofumi Tanaka, University of Texas at Austin professor and director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory. “One good thing about swimming is [that] it is a non-weight-bearing activity. Swimming is truly a really freaky good form of exercise, especially for older people.”

Tanaka himself is an avid swimmer and strongly believes in the health and fitness benefits the sport provides. In fact, he swims often at his neighborhood pool in Circle C Ranch. “I chose the neighborhood for the swimming pool,” Tanaka exclaims. 

Regardless of whether they are new or old to the sport, all of these swimmers share a passion. Ranging in age from 34 to 71, the swimmers train to compete, and four of them, Jennings, Connie George (60), Rick Ravel (70) and Ragland, recently competed in the U.S. Masters Swimming Short Course National Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. 

Additionally, other swimmers, such as Erin Shedd (37), Greg Gravunder (54) and Riffe, train to compete in triathlons and longer distance races.  

“It’s love of being healthy first and then love of the sport, especially for this group,” Edwards explains. “It’s funny. I feel like they could care less about how good they are, but they are good. For them, it’s like I get to see my friends at 5 a.m., swim and have fun, and being fast comes second.”

The entire team has become a family — so much so that the swimmers even convinced Coach Edwards to get back in the water and compete in meets alongside them. 

“I will say, one of the best moments was when Elise and I got to swim our miles together,” Edwards remarks about the race. “It was just really special.”

Edwards previously worked as an emergency room nurse and has made it her new life mission to keep people out of the ER. She focuses greatly on her swimmers’ health, ensuring they are as healthy as can be. 

“I have been so inspired watching this team and its commitment to health,” Edwards remarks. “Coaching them has been one of my greatest joys.” 


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