Donna Edelbaum and Bill Jones Prove that Age is Just a Number

Photo Courtesy: Holly Vanorse Spicer, Courier Publications

By Lianne McCluskey, Swimming World College Intern.

Few sports defy the odds that age is just a number the way that swimming does. For 85-year-old Maine Masters swimmer Donna Edelbaum, not only is she still competing but also is challenging herself to train and specialize in two of the most daunting events: the 200 butterfly and 400 IM.

Her mission is to encourage everyone to get in the water and do what feels right for them. “I want to bring more people toward whatever level they are and encourage them to get in the water – to do something and not feel bad about it. Before you know it, you will actually begin to feel happy and comfortable in the water,” said Edelbaum.

Edelbaum is the only woman in her age group to complete the 200y butterfly and 400y IM so far this year, her IM besting the single one completed last year. Likewise, her 100 IM is the only swim in her age group in the country so far this year and would have been third nationally last year. According to Maine Masters swimmer and historian, Bill Jones, only one other woman in the 85-89 age group has done the 50 fly this year, but Edelbaum is faster; she would have been fifth in the country in 2017. Last year, no woman in the 85-89 age group completed the 200 butterfly, both in long course and short course swimming.

Top 10 Edelbaum

Photo Courtesy: US Masters Swimming Website

Unlike college swimming, where swimmers more often focus on outcomes and reaching the highest achievable goals of the sport, the focus of US Masters Swimming is to encourage swimming as a way to maintain physical fitness.

The program began when the first National Masters Swimming Championships were held on May 2, 1970, at the Amarillo Aquatic Club pool in Amarillo, Texas, with a few dozen swimmers attending. One of US Masters Swimming founders, Captain Ransom J. Arthur – a San Diego Navy doctor – had persuaded John Spannuth, president of the American Swimming Coaches Association, that the event would give older swimmers (ex-competitors and beginners) a goal for keeping physically fit. Arthur’s mission of encouraging adults to improve fitness through swimming has grown over the years into a nationwide organization that currently includes more than 60,000 adult swimmers. The organization encourages swimmers of all abilities to participate however they desire. Less than half of members compete in meets, but that’s the way it was designed – to allow swimmers to build up their ability any way they see fit without pressure.

“When I see someone who is struggling, self-conscious or feels uncomfortable, I come by and let them know it is okay. I urge them tosStart wherever they want to start and build from there. Every stroke can be broken down into small steps. Coaches and more experienced swimmers can help with that,” said Edelbaum.

Edelbaum’s Passion for the Water

Donna E.

Photo Courtesy: Susan Rardin

Edelbaum began her life-long swimming journey in Miami when she was three years old, riding on her father’s back through the ocean waves. Her father was in the Air National Guard, and each summer, she would spend four to six weeks with her family on the beaches of Miami. She described the experience in the water as intoxicating: “This experience of the tides, the ocean, the movement, the fish, those experiences with my dad in the water – that is what infused me with the love of swimming.” 

It wasn’t until Edelbaum was in her early 40s that she began swimming laps at a pool. She was having lower back issues, and with the encouragement of her father, she began swimming for fitness. Before that, people her age – especially women – did not have access to sports and pools. In 1972, the same year Title IX was passed, she began swimming at the Jewish Community Center in Marblehead, Mass.

Donna with medals

Photo Courtesy: Frederick Freudenberger

Over the years, Edelbaum has ranked among the top 10 in her age group numerous times, most notably in the 200y and 200m butterfly and 400y and 400m IM events in the 80-84 age group (and now at 85-89 age group). She has also consistently ranked among her top ten age group over the years, is world ranked, and holds two national relay records. Most recently, Edelbaum broke Maine and New England Masters Swimming Records in the 400y IM, 100y IM, 200y butterfly, and 50y butterfly at the Maine State Senior Games in Augusta, Maine on September 15.

Edelbaum has proved over and over again that nothing will stop her. In 2016, Edelbaum was in a car accident that left her with a double fractured wrist, six broken ribs, a broken leg, and an open wound on her shin, whichwhich caused some medical personnel to suggest that she may never be able to compete again:

I was told I could never swim the breaststroke again. I would never be doing the butterfly, and I said to myself: ‘Oh come on, give me a break. Of course I am going to do that!’ It made me even more definite about accomplishing this. The more they told me I couldn’t do it, the more I was going to show that I could do it. It was just my manner and my way. In particular, I was warned to stay away from the butterfly, and to do only “recreational swimming” in a therapy pool.  This caused me to become even more determined to prove them wrong. Strenuous and competitive swimming was definitely going to be in my future. I am always going to be grateful for the help of those excellent rehab teams and surgeons, who were so crucial to my recovery. To this day I am convinced that any tiny improvement can be huge.”

Edelbaum believes that her progress-oriented mindset helped her get better, along with patience. “I know how long it takes; it doesn’t happen overnight. I think it is just a question of wanting to prove to myself that it isn’t all over. I felt that there was some growing space with me where that isn’t necessarily true for others [who develop physical set backs]. Even tiny improvements are huge when you are beginning from the start again.”

Teammates Edelbaum and Jones are trying to encourage others to swim based on what they have experienced. “People come up to me at every meet and tell me I am inspiring them,” said Edelbaum. “I am happy to inspire them, because that means that they are going to benefit. That is energizing for them, because it gives them a goal to work toward.”

Donna expained that her dear friend and teammate, Bill Jones, is a part of the reason she continues to compete in the 200y butterfly event. “He is the first person who encouraged me to do the longer butterfly events after my 17 year hiatus from swimming due to a chlorine allergy,” said Edelbaum.

Bill Jones’ Swimming Comeback

Bill Jones

Photo Courtesy: Antje Zgrzebski

After Jones didn’t quite make the Olympics (he was ranked third and fourth in the 200 breaststroke) and completed his collegiate swimming career at Amherst College, he said he never wanted to swim again. He didn’t for 17 years. Then, at age 44, Jones was laid up in bed with lower back trouble, and doctors recommended he get back in the pool.

“Frankly, the only way I can keep swimming is to have a goal,” said Jones. One of his most notable accomplishment as a Masters swimmer was when he won a National Championship at age 55 in the 200 breaststroke. Of his more recent accomplishments, last year at age 80, Jones completed all 53 races available in swimming within the year – 18 short course yards events, 18 short course meters events, and 17 long course meters events. He traveled all around the country to meets where he could compete in the various events. He is ranked top 10 in 49 out of 53 of those events in the 80-84 age group.

Now at age 81, Jones says he wants to simply try to help people improve their swimming so they aren’t doing it the hard way. He enjoys making the sport appealing for all levels to give it a try. For Masters swimmers who were former collegiate competitive swimmers, Jones lives the example of burning out of the sport and then coming back years later with a new frame of mind.

Jones said he is most proud of his teammate Edelbaum for what she is proving by swimming the 200 butterfly: “She is encouraging other older people to do the butterfly.”

Inspiring others to overcome fear

“My message to everyone is just get comfortable and don’t get panicked,” said Edelbaum. Other Masters swimmers frequently ask her if she gets nervous for the event. Her answer: “Every time I do this crazy race, who doesn’t? Of course you’re nervous, but the biggest step is to show up.”

Edelbaum looks at what she has been through and identifies her willingness to keep swimming and competing as defiance. “No one is going to tell me my future; that is up to me.”

May we all learn from Jones and Edelbaum that age is just a number – don’t let it limit what you think you are capable of.

Watch as Edelbaum swims at the New England Masters Swimming Championship at Harvard University in Boston Massachusetts on March 18, 2018 (Video courtesy: Bill Ryan).

All interviews and research is conducted by the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Kay Cilimburg

    Courage, perseverance and patience describes Donna’s dedication and thus her amazing accomplishments. CONGRATULATIONS, DONNA!