The first Masters swim meet was the start of something special
As U.S. Masters Swimming celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020, many people are remembering the pivotal moments that have made USMS the thriving organization it is today. One of the most important early moments in the development of the organization was the very first swim meet, held May 2–3, 1970, in Amarillo, Texas.
But Is It Safe?
In the 1960s, exercise as we know it today wasn’t a thing. In 2014, AARP reported that, “in 1968, less than 24 percent of American adults exercised regularly.” This lack of exercise among adults was driven in part by a pervasive yet inaccurate idea that exercise would increase the risk of death among adults. In fact, according to a 2009 report in Time, “as recently as the 1960s, doctors routinely advised against rigorous exercise, particularly for older adults who could injure themselves.”
But there was one physician, a Navy captain and commanding officer of the Navy Medical Neuropsychiatric Research Unit in San Diego who felt differently. Ransom Arthur recommended lots of vigorous, aerobic exercise. Not just for patients under his care, but for as many other people as he could reach. In 1968, he published a paper titled “Swimming and Cardiovascular Fitness in the Older Age Group and Swim Training in the Older Age Group” that contained the seed of an idea that would flourish to eventually become USMS.
Meanwhile, John Spannuth, then the president of the American Swimming Coaches Association, had been looking for some good ideas to help further the reach of his organization. He put out a survey to coaching members asking for novel ways to grow the organization, and Arthur replied with a radical idea of organized swimming groups for adults. Spannuth knew it was a good idea when it crossed his desk in 1968, and he roundly supported Arthur’s proposal for creating a national organization for adult swimmers.
Spannuth and Arthur began working together to create a program to encourage adult swimming across the country. Before long, they hit on the idea of a swim meet to bring people together and get them excited about swimming again. Putting a bunch of middle-aged swimmers back in a competition setting would really make an attention-grabbing splash, they figured. But where? And who would come?
In a 2006 SWIMMER magazine article, Virginia Sowers reported that Spannuth, who was coaching for the Amarillo Aquatic Club in Texas, had recently overseen construction of an indoor 25-yard pool that would the perfect place to host the meet. So with the location settled, a date was set, and an ad was placed in Swimming World magazine.
Roughly 52 (estimates vary) swimmers responded to that ad by showing up to swim in the 1st Annual National Masters Swimming Championship event, which was sponsored by the American Swimming Coach Association in Co-Operation with the Amarillo Aquatic Club.
A Good Time Was Had By All
In their 2009 book “Mastering Swimming,” coaches Jim P. Montgomery and Mo A. Chambers write that although the point was fun, there was still a lingering concern that what these swimmers were doing could be dangerous. Arthur and others were determined to show that swimming for adults was safe, so “when the first national Masters Swimming meet was held [in 1970] in Amarillo, Texas, Ransom and his associates were busy drawing blood and taking blood pressures to understand how the adult athletes tolerated the stress of the sport.”
No health incidents were reported, and apparently a good time was had by all. The meet started leisurely at noon on Saturday and Sunday, May 2 and 3 1970. Events included 50-, 100-, 200- and 400-yard freestyle, 100- and 200-yard backstroke, 100-yard breaststroke, butterfly, IM, and relays. Three age groups were offered: 25–34, 35–44, and 45 and over. The results were typed up and mimeographed for distribution. The Maverick Aquatic Club of Amarillo placed first with 361 points. Spannuth’s Amarillo Aquatic Club was second with 205 points. And Arthur’s United States Navy – San Diego, Calif., team was third with 178 points.
Richard Rahe, a Navy doctor who collaborated with Arthur to build Masters Swimming, attended the meet as part of the third-place Navy team. He described the meet as “very casual; people fell off the blocks, so there was a lot of laughter,” Sowers reported.
In a 1997 article in SWIM magazine, a precursor to today’s SWIMMER magazine, Arthur and Rahe’s teammate Ken Kimball, a dentist with the U.S. Navy who won the men’s 35–44 50-yard free in 26.0, recalled that the fun extended well after conclusion of competition. He told Sowers in 2006 that the after-party at one of the participant’s homes was most excellent.
The results of the first meet were published in Swimming World magazine, and the article caught the attention of many swimmers across the country, including Ted Haartz, who had been swimming for fitness outside Boston for about 10 years. “There were four of us at the Boys Club, and we said, ‘We’re competitive with these guys.’” So when it was announced there would be a second Masters National Championship in May 1971, all four of them piled into a car and drove to Amarillo from Massachusetts. “That’s how I became initially involved in Masters Swimming,” recalls Haartz, who went on to become one of the organization’s most committed and longest-serving volunteers.
That second Masters meet, again organized by Spannuth and sponsored by ASCA in cooperation with the Amarillo Aquatic Club, hosted more than 100 swimmers in the same three age groups. The Intermountain Swim team won with 261 points. California Navy came second with 224.5 points, and the Maverick Aquatic Club of Amarillo finished third with 181 points. Again, swimmers reported having a fabulous time. It seemed the fuse of USMS’s explosive growth had been lit.
“However, with growth came challenges,” Kimball recalled in 1997. “Local clubs were forming, and relays consisted of the four fastest swimmers on the club, regardless of age. Not surprisingly, teams were recruiting 25-year-olds and ignoring the older swimmers.” But as with so many aspects of Masters Swimming’s evolution, the fix followed soon after. Kimball’s novel solution—combining the ages of all relay swimmers and placing them in age groups—stays with us today. Suddenly, age had its upsides; the older the total age of the relay participants, the higher the age group. Older swimmers were thus revered and drawn into more relays.
From that point onward, Masters national championship meets would only grow in size and prestige. The 1972 edition of the meet was held in San Mateo, Calif., and drew 325 swimmers. In 1973, 500 Masters swimmers descended upon Santa Monica, Calif., for the championship. In 1981, 1,209 swimmers turned out in Irvine, Calif., for the Short Course National Championship Meet. The 2018 meet, held in Indianapolis, drew a record 2,376 swimmers.
Spurring a Lifelong Love Affair
Bob Beach, an 89-year-old retired judge who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., has been an ardent fan and supporter of Masters Swimming since the beginning and says the early meets were immensely enjoyable, helping rekindle a love of competitive swimming in many who participated. “I think the camaraderie and friendliness of the meets when we first started was very impressive to me.”
The earliest meets thumbed their noses at the conventional wisdom that these adults were courting death by racing, Beach says. In the early 1970s, “There were many in the medical field who were against it, who said, ‘You’ll be killing people. Don’t be doing those exercises over 25. It’s very dangerous to get older people like that swimming. They’re going to be dying!’ But Ransom Arthur said, ‘They’re going to die someplace.’” It might as well be in the pool while having a good time swimming.
“That was his attitude,” Beach recalls, and we now know that Arthur was right that swimming for adults wasn’t just not dangerous, it actually confers a number of documented health benefits. Not just physical health, but social and mental health benefits too, Beach notes.
“The pool has become a major factor in our lives. Our whole lives revolve around swimming and the camaraderie in the pool. You can watch the sun come up in the morning [while swimming] and it’s really very influential in our lives. Masters Swimming has affected so many lives,” he says.