Swimming World’s Masters Swimmers of the Year: The Top-12 For 2021

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Swimming World’s Masters Swimmers of the Year: The Top-12 For 2021

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The following 12 athletes, six men and six women, have been named Swimming World’s Masters Swimmers of the Year for 2021. Listed alphabetically, here is what they achieved to earn their accolades.

JANE ASHER, GREAT BRITAIN (90-94)

Jane Asher is in her 10th decade of life, but she still finds new ways to astound. For starters, last Nov. 28, Asher set three FINA World Masters records (SCM) on the same day: 400 free (8:48.34), 800 free (17:58.34) and 1500 free (33:41.77). It was one of four record-setting days in 2021 for the 90-year-old, bringing her total of world records to nearly 200 in an International Swimming Hall of Fame career.

jane asher

Photo Courtesy:

Born in what is now Zambia, raised in South Africa and representing Great Britain internationally, Asher qualified for the World University Games in her 20s and started breaking Masters records in her 50s. Counting the 10 world records she set last year (1 LC, 9 SC), 28 of them currently stand, from age 75-up, amid incalculable numbers of British and European titles and records.

In 2021, she added a fourth age classification to her sterling curriculum vitae, first by setting the long course mark in the 800 free on Sept. 11. She followed that by claiming short course meters records in the 200 free and 50 back on Oct. 2, then records in the 100 individual medley, 50 free, 100 free and 100 back from Oct. 29-31.

Asher holds every SCM freestyle record in the 90-94 age group plus two backstroke standards and the 100 IM. Yet given her efforts coaching and volunteering at clubs near her home in Norwich, England, the Cherriman Trophy recipient’s exploits in the pool capture only a fraction of what she has given to the swimming community in a life of devotion to the sport.

—Matthew De George

VLADISLAV BRAGIN, Russia (50-54)

Over the course of his swimming career, Russia’s Vladislav Bragin has owned Masters world records in at least four age groups. Previously, he set marks in the 35-39, 40-44 and 45-49 age groups, and even before this year, Bragin had set records in all three breaststroke distances (50, 100 and 200 meters) in long course. In fact, Bragin still owns the 35-39 record in the 50 breast at 28.47, a record he set back in 2009.

In 2021, Bragin broke three individual records in the 50-54 age group. In April, he swam a 1:06.40 in the 100 breast (LC) and a 2:27.66 in the 200 breast, and he followed that up with a 30.16 performance in the 50 breast in early June. Those three performances were enough for Bragin to clinch his first-ever recognition as one of Swimming World’s Masters Swimmers of the Year. The win makes him just the third Russian ever to achieve this recognition, following 2013 winner Olga Kokorina and 2017 honoree Sergey Geybel.

—David Rieder

JOHN COCKS, Australia (85-89)

When John Cocks was a teenager, he was a swimmer. He competed in freestyle and backstroke races for his school and had some success, and he was named captain his senior year. But his swimming career ended when he began university in the mid-1950s.

During those years, he focused his athletic attention on rugby. He was a captain of the under-19 squad in Victoria, and he later played with the “Wallabies,” Australia’s national team for rugby, during a tour in New Zealand. After that, he began a long career as a consultant surgeon, and he helped introduce laparoscopic (keyhole) abdominal surgery in Australia.

When Cocks retired in 2000, swimming was a distant memory. But a few years later, his two daughters asked him to swim in a mixed relay with them, so Cocks began training again. After only a brief period, he broke a Victorian state record in the 100 backstroke.

“Starting to swim again when in my 70s has helped me considerably,” Cocks said. “Improving gradually and times speeding up with more training each year has been a stimulus to continue.”

Shortly after his return, Cocks became interested in competing in individual medley events, but there was a slight complication he needed to overcome: “Butterfly did not exist in my school days,” he said.

So Cocks, now training with the Malvern Marlins, learned how to swim butterfly, and he quickly began excelling in the stroke. He eventually broke Australian national records and even Masters world records, culminating with three such records in 2021. He clocked long course marks in the 85-89 age group in the 100 fly (1:50.27) and the 200-400 IM (3:39.66, 7:56.23). For those achievements, Cocks is named a Swimming World Masters Swimmer of the Year for the first time in 2021.

Cocks said that breaking world records is “always a thrill, to still be up among the best of the age group at the time, but records are always there to be broken, and, already, two of my world records have been broken, one in the previous age group.”

—David Rieder

LAWRENCE DAY, USA (70-74)

Lawrence Day, a winner of Swimming World’s Masters Swimmer of the Year honor for the second time (previously 2016), had to get creative when indoor pools in his home state of Michigan were shut down for almost six months in 2020. He was fully out of the water for about 11 weeks, but starting in early June, he was able to swim in a private, 15-yard, outdoor pool, and soon after that, he started swimming in Lake Michigan with a wetsuit and an insulated cap.

In the 15-yard pool, Day focused on swimming in place with a tether, and 10-to-20-minute freestyle swims with a snorkel helped him focus on his catch and early vertical forearm positions. “I believe my technique improved during COVID as a result of this,” Day said. He put the “short” in ultra-short-race-pace training by swimming repeat 15-yard bursts on 30 seconds, which he thinks helped improve his speed.

When pools reopened in September 2020, Day said, “It felt like a gift from God,” although he still had work to do in building up conditioning. Returning to racing felt different, too, and Day was careful to hold back in races 200 yards or longer, at least initially. “It was important not to get into oxygen debt during the first half of these races,” Day said. “This approach helped build my confidence and led to some good swims—for me at my age—that did not hurt.”

All that work paid off as Day set an amazing 12 world records in the 70-74 age group last year. In long course, he broke marks in the 200 back (2:40.25), 50-100-200 fly (29.98, 1:07.40, 2:47.17) and the 200-400 IM (2:42.94, 5:55.97). In short course, Day’s records came in the 100-200 back (1:11.49, 2:34.96), 100-200 fly (1:06.54, 2:45.30) and the 100-200 IM (1:12.04, 2:37.22).

Setting a Masters world record has always brought Day a special feeling of accomplishment. “I was goal-oriented from a young age,” he said. “I love the pursuit of challenging, worthwhile goals. It gives me joy and maybe an illusory sense of mastery to achieve something difficult through dedication, discipline and hard work. It’s a victory over self.”

—David Rieder

DAGMAR FRESE, GERMANY (65-69)

Dagmar Frese first made a name for herself at the 1976 Olympics (as Dagmar Rehak) in the breaststroke events, representing West Germany. More than four decades later, she is still making waves internationally in the pool.

Frese rewrote the record books in 2021 for the 65-69 age group in both long and short course. At the German Masters Championships in Braunschweig in September, Frese set world records (LC) in both the 50 and 100 breast (40.11, 1:30.27). Hers were the only global standards produced in the meet among four European marks and 25 German records.

In November’s German Masters Short Course Championships in Essen, she took down records in the same two events, going 38.90 over 50 meters and 1:28.47 over 100.

Frese is no stranger to elite Masters competition, setting world records stretching back to the 50-54 age group. A representative of SGS Hanover, Frese’s Masters journey follows an illustrious international career in her 20s, winning several West German national titles and a European Championships medal with a West German medley relay.

This is the first time Frese has been honored as a Swimming World Top 12 Masters swimmer, although she finished as a runner-up in 2016.

—Matthew De George

HEIDI GEORGE, USA (45-49)

Heidi George is a former NCAA D-III athlete who has found international acclaim as a Masters swimmer. In 2021, she set six world records in the 45-49 category: the 400-800-1500 freestyle in both long course and short course. Her first LC record came last June in the 1500 (17:29.77), then she set another one three days later in the 800 (9:11.47). She added her third LC standard in August with a 4:31.95 for the 400.

“As I get older, I’m constantly learning about my body, training and technique through Masters swimming,” said George. “I have to really give kudos to the communities that kept their pools open and took a more scientific vs. emotional approach to the pandemic. Exercise is just too important for health.”

George set her first two SCM freestyle records of the year during the USMS Short Course Nationals, touching the wall in 17.09.61 for the 1500 and 4:24.86 in the 400. In October at the Rowdy Gaines Masters Classic, she completed her distance freestyle sweep with her sixth world record of the year, a 9:05.44 in the 800.

George also currently owns Masters world records for the 1500 in the 35-39 and 40-44 age groups. In 2015, she earned runner-up recognition in SW’s Top 12 Masters awards.

—Ashleigh Shay

DAVID GUTHRIE, USA (60-64)

In 2021, David Guthrie set four Masters world records in the 60-64 age group, all in breaststroke events. He broke the world record in the long course 200 breast in June (2:40.19), and a little over a month later, he set short course WRs in the 100 and 200 breast (1:09.53, 2:32.34). Finally, at the USMS Long Course Nationals in Ohio in October, he broke the 100 breast record with his time of 1:11.72. Those performances earned Guthrie his fourth nod as a Swimming World Masters Swimmer of the Year. Guthrie previously won the award in 2013, 2014 and 2016, and he has been a runner-up on four other occasions, as early as 2008.

David Guthrie

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Like many Masters swimmers, Guthrie needed to change his training at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. He was completely out of the water for six months, and then he swam sparingly for another six months after that. His Masters group did not return to full practice until May 2021, so he decided to try calisthenics (bodyweight training). He located a calisthenics gym that followed strict COVID protocols and jumped into a new form of training.

“My daily routine kept me emotionally buoyant and positive as I got stronger and more resilient,” he said. “I was improving instead of deteriorating. There’s no question that my mental and physical health are symbiotic, inextricably interdependent. Training preserved and strengthened my mental health.

“The pandemic presented huge challenges, but also opportunities and paths I would not have explored otherwise.”

Guthrie made strength gains during that year away, but he found the return to swim workouts “humbling.” He had to temporarily pause calisthenics to rebuild his endurance in the pool, but by the summer of 2021, he was able to combine the two. Guthrie’s racing performances in his return to competition did not match his own expectations, but simply being able to race again was a huge victory.

“The overwhelming feeling was simply gratitude,” he said. “Having swimming taken away brought its importance into sharp relief. Any doubts about whether or not it is worthwhile were erased. The energy of each meet exuded gratitude for being able to gather, being reunited with the tribe, and for the opportunity to race—things many of us took for granted before.”

—David Rieder

RYAN HELD, USA (25-29)

Ryan Held, 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the 400 meter freestyle relay, is continuing his success in Masters competition. At 26, he already holds four world records, all of which were set at the Ron Johnson Invitational Arizona State Championship SCM Meet in November: 50 free (21.28), 50 back (23.70), 50 fly (23.15) and 100 IM (52.78).

ryan-held-

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“Becoming a Masters swimmer was a bit surreal, but also comforting,” Held said. “It was surreal because it meant that I was old enough to compete in Masters when I feel like I just graduated college a few years ago. However, after stepping on deck at my first meet, I realized the people there were swimming because they love the sport, love the community and are proud to still be racing decades after the typical retiring age of swimmers. It makes me hopeful that I will continue along this path and have like-minded people with me the whole time.”

Before his Masters’ career, Held frequented the NCAA podium six times while competing for North Carolina State. He claimed an NCAA title during the 2016 Championships in the 400 freestyle relay (2:44.31).

Held is currently an arena-sponsored athlete. He swims for the New York Athletic Club team, which is also his Masters’ club team.

—Ashleigh Shay

MAURINE KORNFELD, USA (100-104)

More than 100 years old, Maurine Kornfeld still finds a home in the water.

After multiple record-setting performances in 2021, she was named one of Swimming World’s Masters Swimmers of the Year for the fourth time in her career (also 2016-17-18).

Maurine KornfeldKornfeld broke long course Masters world records in six events last year in the 100-104 age group: 50-100-200 free (1:12.84, 2:52.45, 6:33.32) and 50-100-200 back (1:29.22, 2:55.51, 6:22.14). She added four more SCM standards in October: 50 free (1:15.61) and 50-100-200 back (1:29.22, 2:55.51, 6:22.14).

She was inducted into the Masters Swimming Hall of Fame in 2018. She described her swimming hobby at her induction: “Four mornings a week before dawn’s early light, I tackle two freeways and drive to the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center for a Masters team workout. I must confess to being frequently tardy, which I attribute to traffic, not my indolence.

“It’s such fun swimming with my teammates who are remarkably tolerant of my snail pace and who literally swim circles around me. After our coach, Chad Durieux, announces ‘THE END,’ a group of us hang out in the hot tub as a further ‘cool-down,’ and we settle the problems of the world.

“Once I’m dry behind my ears, I go off for another major activity: that of being a docent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and also being a docent and giving tours at the historic Los Angeles Union Station,” said Kornfeld.

—Dan D’Addona

MASURA SHINKAI, Japan (80-84)

Japan’s Masura Shinkai has been selected as one of Swimming World’s Masters Swimmers of the year after a record-setting 2021 campaign. Shinkai broke four short course Masters world records and three more in long course to bring his total to seven records set in the 80-84 age group in 2021.

In short course, Shinkai set global standards in the 100 breaststroke (1:31.77), 200 breaststroke (3:21.35), 100 butterfly (1:30.06) and 200 IM (3:16.09). In long course, he broke world records in the 100 breaststroke (1:34.41), 200 breaststroke (3:27.72) and 400 IM (7:12.03).

—Dan D’Addona

DIANN UUSTAL, USA (75-79)

USA swimmer Diann Uustal has had an uphill battle in the pool the past couple of years. Dealing with an illness as well as fighting through the COVID-19 pandemic, it hasn’t been easy to get into the water at all.

Yet she continued to battle and was able to compete in Masters events, breaking several world records along the way in the 75-79 age group. In October, she broke the long course 50 freestyle record (34.11), and a day later, she broke two more records: 100 free (1:17.38) and 50 back (40.08). And on the third day, she broke her fourth long course mark, clocking 1:28.67 in the 100 backstroke.

About a week later, she switched to short course and added three more Masters global standards—100 free (1:15.87) and 100-200 back (1:26.80, 3:10.53)—giving her seven Masters world records in 2021.

“I’m so very glad to be honored in this way,” Uustal told Swimming World. “I share this with my husband, Tom, and my family, coaches and teammates who have encouraged me during a time when all of us as athletes were scrambling to find solace in the water and camaraderie with our teammates. COVID showed us all that our resiliency and love for swimming, not just racing, was unifying. We supported each other, and the meets finally came back.

“In wrestling with a debilitating illness, I’ve learned that I’m blessed to have faith, family and swimming that shapes my body, mind and spirit, and reaffirms we are all winners no matter the speed of our strokes.”

—Dan D’Addona

LAURA VAL, USA (70-74)

Every year when the top Masters swimmers in the world are discussed, Laura Val’s name comes up. Now 70, she has been one of Swimming World’s Masters Swimmers of the Year for 15 straight seasons since 2006. (The magazine did not recognize the top Masters swimmers in 2020 because of the pandemic.)

It doesn’t matter what age group she is in, Val finds a way to set records. In fact, she has 402 world or national records since her career began—199 more than the nearest swimmer on the all-time list.

In 2021, she claimed a stunning 16 Masters world records (10 LC, 6 SC) in the 70-74 age group. All but three of her record performances were swum in October!

For the “record,” her Masters standards came in all strokes except breaststroke: LC—50-100-200-400-800 free (30.73, 1:06.90, 2:33.79, 5:25.00, 11:11.89), 50-100-200 back (34.65, 1:17.98, 2:49.43), 100 fly (1:16.07) and 200 IM (3:00.96); SC—50-100-200 back (35.18, 1:16.55, 2:47.56), 100 fly (1:15.46) and 100-200 IM (1:20.61, 2:52.19).

And her world records have withstood the test of time: Val currently holds 54 WRs (30 LC, 24 SC) in five different age groups, beginning with the women’s 50-54 category—a 200 fly world record that she set more than 20-1/2 years ago!

“What’s interesting about Laura’s recent accomplishments is the impact of COVID on her routine since the last time Swimming World selected Masters Swimmers of the Year (2019),” says Richard Burns, Val’s friend and Tamalpais Aquatic Masters teammate—and five-time World Masters Swimmer of the Year and one-time runner-up.

“Santa Clara Swim Club, where she has trained for all of her Masters’ career, had completely shut down. This meant she no longer had the challenge of her training compatriots—mostly younger guys who challenged her to keep up in rigorous 5,000-meters-a-day (plus or minus) workouts.

“2020 training was almost entirely done in the San Francisco Bay—a totally new experience that did not inspire great confidence in how it might translate into pool racing. When some pools became available, she found herself training alone in a local health club pool. Her practice ethic is compulsive, but she has the discipline to do solo 5,000-yard workouts plus dryland and a 30-minute stationary bike ride every day.

“Despite her self-doubts about racing readiness, her first meets in two years were the long course nationals in October and a local short course meters meet a week later. In those two weekends, she set 16 FINA world records in her new age group.

“Suffice it to say, her training was not a problem!”

—Dan D’Addona

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Amanda Sovik-johnston
7 months ago

Love this! And check out Shirley Loftus- 70-74. Multiple WR’s and an inspiration to us all!!!

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Robin walker
7 months ago

Compulsive about training sounds negative, let’s just say swimming is part of her regular lifestyle as fitness should be.

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Laura Val
7 months ago
Reply to  Robin walker

i agree. Thanks!

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Wallaby
7 months ago

Where is Paul Blackbeard ?

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Chris Savage
7 months ago

Way to go Laura!!