Bill Durell Swims 1650 Butterfly at US Masters Nationals in ‘Weirdest Event I’ve Ever Done’

Photo Courtesy: USMS

Bill Durell Swims 1650 Butterfly at US Masters Nationals in ‘Weirdest Event I’ve Ever Done’

By Daniel Paulling

Bill Durell climbed out of the pool with ease following his first event Wednesday at the U.S. Masters Swimming Short Course National Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina. The 1,650 yards he had just swum hadn’t worn down the 70-year-old.

No, he doesn’t tire easily despite having done his entire race butterfly.

“It’s the weirdest event I’ve ever done,” he says. “That one is psychologically the most difficult to swim. The third and fourth lengths are the worst. The first two [lengths], you’re just getting in the water, but the third and fourth, it sets in: ‘Oh, my God, how many more do I have to do?’

“It’s just methodical. You just need to get in the groove. It takes about 20 (lengths) to do that. That is the only event I’ve ever swum where the further you go, the easier it becomes.”

Swimming butterfly or at a national championship didn’t seem likely for him not too long ago.

After swimming while growing up, Bill Durell took several decades off from the sport. He started lap swimming about a decade ago, and when a Masters coach invited him to compete in a meet, he joined USMS in 2014.

Durell, however, had trouble settling on which events to swim.

“I’m not a gifted swimmer, not fast,” says Durell, who holds eight USMS Top 10 times. “You know the old saying, ‘If you’re not fast, you’ve got to be long.’ I thought, ‘What could I do if I can’t swim fast? I’m not a sprinter and not terribly fast at the long (freestyle) events. What is it that I could do that would be different yet would be long? Why not this?’”

Durell only learned how to swim butterfly at age 68 so he could do IM races, but he celebrated his 69th birthday by doing his first 1650 butterfly. His time of 39:20.90 on Wednesday, which placed him fourth in the 70-74 age group, was his personal best for a 1650 butterfly.

He describes the 1650 butterfly as meditative.

“It’s a combination of meditation and concentration,” Durell says. “I’ve found the only thing you should focus on is the breathing. In the butterfly stroke, the breathing is the absolute hardest of all the strokes. I’ve found if you don’t think about the number of lengths, don’t focus on the kick, the pool, anything. Focus on the breathing. And that’s what the meditation people do.”

Durell, a member of Minnesota Masters, trains extensively for his race, swimming 1,000 yards of butterfly five days a week. He usually does 7 x 50s of the stroke and then a 650 butterfly, though sometimes he’ll just do the 1,000 yards consecutively.

He doesn’t plan to stop swimming butterfly anytime soon. Durell hopes to become the oldest man to complete the Borboleta Challenge, a 1650 butterfly swum at an annual meet hosted by Palo Alto Masters. (Borboleta is Portuguese for butterfly.) The record is 74.

Bill Durell, who also swam the 1000 freestyle doing freestyle later on Wednesday, recognizes that a 1650 butterfly isn’t for everyone.

“It’s kind of nutty to do something like that,” he says.

However, Durell recommends people try it.

“When I first started swimming butterfly, I could only do three (strokes) and then I was beat,” Durell says. “If I can do [it, then everyone can]. It’s a tremendous sense of empowerment.”


USMS Records Broken

Heidi George, Unattached within Pacific LMSC: women’s 45-49 1000 freestyle (10:18.44)

Heidi George, Unattached within Pacific LMSC: women’s 45-49 1650 freestyle (17:05.13)

Nancy Steadman Martin, Garden State Masters: women’s 65-59 1650 freestyle (20:33.09)


Note: All records are subject to change pending verification.


  1. avatar
    Linda J Atkins


    • avatar

      Thank you Linda. I am indebted to all the long-fly
      pioneers who preceded me.

  2. avatar

    As a 70+ marathon swimming, I am in awe. Respect.

    • avatar

      Thank you Ellis. I am indebted to all the
      long-fly pioneers who preceded me.

  3. avatar
    David Ladd

    In 2015, I swam an 10k all butterfly but I was only 62 at the time. I was swimming between 4 and 7,000 yards a day in preparation for several months before that. I took 3, less than 5 minute bathroom breaks and finished in 4 hours, 15 minutes. It was a charity money-raiser where each individual selected their own charity. I had done several 10k’s of freestyle for the same charity but this year, I wasn’t having much response to my pleas for donations and eventually committed to doing the whole thing in fly. The event was held at the Kingsport Aquatic Center in Kingsport, TN. Greg Wellman, also of Kingsport, was the organizer of the event.
    I was concerned, at one point during the training, that it might kill me so I googled and found a woman from Ontario that had swum fly across all four Great Lakes in one year. She swam from Toronto to the Niagara-On-The-Lake and back in one swim and had also done the English Channel. She was 39 when she retired, though…

    • avatar

      Thank you David. There are so many courageous
      long-distance swimmers – and you are one of them. The oldest Borboleta Challenge
      male was 74. I hope to beat that record.

  4. avatar
    Rita S. Schneider

    You go, friend!

  5. avatar
    Tim Mahaffey

    Great! Good job Bill! Congratulations!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.