Marie Kelleher: Barrier Breaker

GLEN ALLEN, Virginia, May 18. MARIE Kelleher has achieved a milestone that very few have accomplished in the 40-plus years of Masters swimming.

Last weekend at the Virginia Senior Games, Kelleher became the first American woman to compete in the 100-104 age group, establishing Masters national and world records in the short course meters 50 and 100 freestyles. Though Kelleher is still 99 years old, she is considered a centenarian in the eyes of FINA, the international swimming governing body. The organization sets the ages for Masters swimmers in long course and short course meters meets as their age on December 31 of that year. So, Kelleher was able to say she was 100 years old seven months before her actual birthday (Dec. 21).

She swam a 3:40.00 in the 100 freestyle, the furthest length anyone has swum in the 100-104 age group. Her time of 1:44.10 in the 50 freestyle, coincidentally, almost surpassed the national record in the 95-99 age group. (Mary Lathram still holds that mark at 1:43.00.)

She's not the first person in the world to race in the 100-104 age group, however, as Spain's Rosa Sellares competed in the 50 backstroke in 2010. Tom Lane and Jaring Timmerman are the only two males in history to establish times in that age group.

Kelleher is no stranger to records. She owns three short course meters and five short course yards national standards in the 95-99 age group, as well as the 50 short course yards butterfly record in the 90-94 division.

But last weekend was the first time she's been recognized as the fastest in the world in her age group — a distinction that barely registered with the modest and soft-spoken Kelleher.

“People were telling me (after my races) that I was first person to do this or that,” she said with a chuckle. “It was nice to hear, but I didn't think it was that big of a deal. I was just out there swimming.”

The Glen Allen, Va., resident started swimming competitively when she was 65 years old, when her daughter urged her to participate in a local meet. The elder Kelleher had been swimming just for fitness before that.

“It was very strange,” she said. “I was not used to competition. There were so many things to learn that day.”

But Kelleher liked the experience, and now shows up to two meets per year: A Masters meet and the Virginia Senior Games, both in Richmond. Her training regimen these days includes about 300 yards four days a week, and some calisthenics at home, “just something to keep me flexible.”

And though she's well past retirement age, Kelleher still works for the family business, Kelleher Heating and Air Conditioning, doing odd jobs in the office. Between work and exercise, Kelleher's day is probably fuller than most people half her age. And that's how she likes it.

“I don't enjoy retirement,” she said. “I enjoy the flexibility that I'm able to take with my work. I like to read, but I don't want to read all day. (Going to work) gives you something to do outside of the house.”

Kelleher has no concrete plans to celebrate her 100th birthday in December, though she expects her family will coordinate some kind of party. But she does know that she will be racing in 2013.

“I wouldn't really call it racing, but I will swim next year,” she said. “Well, I'm hoping to get there.”