International Day of Older Persons  and the Aging Demographics of Open Water Swimmers

International Day of Older Persons and the Aging Demographics of Open Water Swimmers

The United Nations International Day of Older Persons will be celebrated on October 1st.

When we think about the United Nations’ effort to bring awareness and support to older people, we cannot help thinking about the graying of the open water swimming community. The global open water swimming community is undergoing an interesting phenomenon – it is rapidly growing as the demographics of the open water swimmers ages. Open water swimming is one of the world’s most clear examples of the benefits of active, healthy longevity.

In 1950, when Hassan Abdel Rehim from Egypt won the Daily Mail race across the English Channel in a record time of 10 hours 50 minutes, there were 205 million people who were 60 years or over around the world. In contrast, in 2014, when Dr. Otto Thaning became the oldest individual in history to cross the English Channel in 12 hours 52 minutes at the age of 73, the number of people over the age of 60 had increased nearly fourfold to 810 million. In 2050, when Chloë McCardel will be 65 years old (with presumably more than 42 English Channel crossings that she has currently achieved), the number of older people on Planet Earth is projected to reach 2 billion.

So, within the potential life span of Dr. Thaning, the world’s population may increase from 205 million to 2 billion. Incredible.

The demographic trends around the world are changing rapidly. For example, by the year 2030 in the U.S., the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 National Population Projections predict that 1 in every 5 American residents will be retirement age. By 2034, there will be 77 million Americans 65 years and older compared to 76.5 million under the age of 18. By 2050, people 65 years and older are estimated to comprise of 15.6% of the world’s population while the children under 5 years will only comprise of 7.2%. The future can be seen through the demographics in Japan whose population peaked in 2010 at 128 million people. By 2050, 40% of Japan’s population is projected to be older than 65 years. Currently, 25% of Japan’s population is already older than 65 and its median age is nearly 46.

But how do these changes impact the open water swimming world?

Unlike many land-based sports, swimmers often swim well into their golden years. In the swimming world, the number of quinquagenarians (people in their 50’s), sexagenarians (people in their 60’s), septuagenarians (people in their 70’s), octogenarians (people in their 80’s), nonagenarians (people in their 90’s) and centenarians (people over 100) continues to increase – as a rapidly increasing rate.

In 1979, American Olympic coach Doc Counsilman became the then-oldest person to swim across the English Channel at the age of 58. That English Channel age record increased when 73-year-old South African Dr. Thaning broke 71-year-old Australian Cyril Baldock’s previous record. Dr. Thaning said afterwards, “My wish was basically to promote the idea that people over the age of 70 can do things like this if they look after themselves and work hard.”

Channel swimmer, health authority and renowned physician Dr. Peter Attia has written extensively about how one’s lifespan and healthspan can be increased through healthful nutrition, periodic fasting, improved sleep and stress management. His Nerd Safari summarizes myriad research on a wide variety of topics here.

Swimming remains a part of the swimmers’ exercise program and lifestyle throughout their lives. Looking forward to the year 2050, will Ferry Weertman (58 years old), Maarten van der Weijden (69), Kimberley Chambers (74), Ger Kennedy (81), Lewis Pugh (81), Yuko Matsuzaki (88) Ned Denison (92), Elizabeth Fry (91), Antonio Argüelles (91), Pat Gallant-Charette (99), Jim McConica (100), and Michael Read (109) still be swimming in 2050?

Nejib Belhedi of Tunisia who will attempt a 155 km solo marathon swim from Italy to Tunisia in 2022 at the age of 70.

Pat Gallant-Charette predicts her continued involvement in the sport, “If I’m still kicking in 2050 at the age of 99, I will be swimming. I have no intentions of retiring from marathon swimming. Last year at the age of 66, I set three records for the oldest woman to swim the English Channel, the Molokai Channel, and across Lake Ontario. It was my strongest year in swimming. I am looking forward to many future years of marathon swimming.”

Darren Miller, one of 21 people who have completed the Oceans Seven, says, “My personal desire, and something I’ve thought about for quite some time, was to set the oldest English Channel crossing one day. Since I would estimate the age of that crosser to be well into their 80s by the time I get up there, I tell audiences that I have set a long term goal of crossing the English Channel in the summer of 2073, or during my 90th birthday year.”

International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Swimmer Penny Palfrey from Australia says, “So long as I’m able and have opportunity, I hope to swim well into my golden years to some degree. I quite fancy being able to amble into the water at the back of the pack and follow the crowd around the swim buoys. In 2050 I’ll be 88. My grandmother is over 104 years old, so here’s hoping!

Masters world record holder and veteran ocean swimmer Jim McConica who recently lost his home in the California fire says, “I lost about a month of water time due to the Thomas fire. I am just now getting my mileage and conditioning back. Last Friday and Saturday combined, I was finally able to get in 16,000 yards with some tempo.

Long term, I do hope to swim until I die. We are very fortunate in Ventura [California] to have a top-of-the-line 50 meter pool as well as the ocean. Our long distance group is outstanding. We are all friends. The group support makes success both possible and fun. This environment should give me every chance to continue swimming for a very long time. Years ago I was quoted as saying I hope to swim until I am 120 and have people say I swim like an 80-year-old. That is still my hope.

The loss of my home has been more than tough. In minutes, forty years of history, work and memories went away. I try to stay positive, thinking I can only worry about things I can control. The rebuild process is creating its own challenges. Swimming has always been a positive force in my life. I feel very fortunate to have that stability, particularly now.”

International Swimming Hall of Fame and International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame dual inductee Michael Read says, “I hope [to continue swimming]. I still have ambitions unfulfilled and I still need time to be able to accomplish them, So much to do, alas, so little time to do it.”

International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Swimmer and United Nations Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh agrees, “[I plan on swimming] till my last day.”

Oahu-based veteran channel swimmer Bill Goding predicts, “In 2050 I will be 97 years old. I do plan on continuing swimming till then, mainly for the health benefits and the advantage of it being non weight bearing, yet still exercising all the muscles. And, maybe by then I might break a world record of some event, but I have a feeling the competition will be tough.”

Nora Toledano, Elizabeth Fry, Sally Minty-Gravett MBE

RCP Tiburon Mile founder Bob Placak says, “Swimming has been an integral part of my life since I was 6 years old. It is a priority that I look forward to daily and anticipate with joy. I truly enjoy the way it makes me feel mentally, spiritually and physically. The impact to my health is immense. Swimming allows me an outlet to compete, a legitimate way to channel aggression and set goals of achievement. I don’t drive aggressively and competitively like many do, I have an outlet to channel.

I still set goals in swimming. I generally look forward to these competitions as a milestone of my progress. I enjoy the camaraderie of competitions. I enjoy training with younger, faster swimmers that set the bar at a higher level than my age and peers. I love it when I am underestimated by these youngsters and gain their respect through workouts and competitions. I am always looking for a new challenge. As the great John Wooden said, ‘There is no such thing as staying the same, you are either getting better or getting worse. There is no such thing as holding on to what you’ve got.’

My philosophy echoes that of the late Dwayne Andreas’ approach to life, ‘A gazelle must run faster than the fastest lion or be eaten. A lion needs to outrun the slowest gazelle or starve. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or gazelle. When the sun comes up you better be running!’

Swimming will have to be taken away from me. I’m not going to willingly give it up. I will strive and I anticipate, God willing, that I will still be enjoying swimming in 2050 at age 91.”

62-year-old Mexican Oceans Seven swimmer Antonio Argüelles thought he was old at the age of 40 when he first swam the English Channel in 1999. “Ximena came along and I thought it would be the last time she could see me drift into the water or emerged at the other end. While swimming, I thought about how great it would be to celebrate her birthday in Paris days later. As I was immersed in that thought, a big wave splashed in my face and swallowed the most salt water in my life. A big lesson was thought; do not let your mind wander while you swim. After 18 hours 19 minutes, I swore by the Virgin of Guadalupe that I would never do ocean swimming again.
Ten years later, trying to accomplish the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming in one season, I had only one day left in my window to swim the Channel, when Mike Oram told me that even when the weather was not good, he would give me a chance to feel the water.

I went in knowing that if I failed that day, my quest was over. As the waves pushed me side to side, I remember thinking that this was my last swim, that I had to give all I had because I was 50 and my days were over. Once I reached the other side, I thanked the ocean Gods and promised never to go back to swimming.

My quest for Everest ended with a broken femur and rehabilitation in the water. Oceans Seven was born somewhere there and a new light was brought into my life. In my last swim across the North Channel, the odds were against me. Quinton Nelson told me the day before my window ended that swimming was almost impossible. That night I went to bed with two thoughts in my mind: (1) if I did not swim I would be able to enjoy one more year training, and (2) if I had the opportunity I would finish.

The morning after the swim Lucía and I had breakfast, she asked me if I was happy. When I said I did, she made me promise that for two years I would not embark in any other crazy journey. She wanted our family to have vacations that did not include swimming. I agreed and next Wednesday we are leaving on a trip to Poland, Hungary and Croatia for three weeks. A Catalina Channel crossing in California, my second home, is a goal. If I am alive at 91, I wish I had finished a swim with one of my grandchildren the previous year.

Sal Minty-Gravett who will attempt another English Channel crossing in her sixth consecutive decade says, “I will be 93 in 2050, but I clearly hope I will still be sea swimming – but I doubt that I will be swimming the Channel still – but who knows?!?

Ice swimming record holder Rory Fitzgerald says, “As someone once said, ‘I plan to live forever…so far, so good…’ So in 2050 I shall probably be, at 92, the oldest adolescent in the pool. I certainly plan to keep swimming, chasing the likes of Ned Denison and Ram Barkai for those age group records and titles in the water. Maybe by then I shall have figured out some of the flaws in my stroke technique and be able to mitigate the wear and tear injuries that are so prevalent amongst the growing population of silver swimmers. But I say bring it on – I shall be looking for podium finishes as long as I am still able to climb onto the podium…

Same with International Ice Swimming Association founder Ram Barkai, “I’ll be 92 years old in 2050. If I’m alive, I’ll be swimming.”

British Ice Ironman Andrew Ainge says, “I will be 80 in 2050 and probably still chasing my final Ice Seven swim.”

Catalina Channel record relay member Dr. Lyle Nalli admits, “2050 would put me at 90 years old. Will I be swimming? Most likely. Swimming the mile? Not sure. 100 meters seems a long way to swim for the nonagenarians I watch swim.”

Swim Across America CEO Rob Butcher says, “I just turned 45 and I hope to still be going in 50 years, go get some records in the 95-99 age group.”

Coney Island Polar Bear Club senior member Tom McGann says, “I’ll be 96 so I hope to be swimming in 2005. I’ll be in the slow lane.”

The list of the oldest people to swim across the channels of the Oceans Seven is below. It is bound to change over the next few decades, several times by many different swimmers. “Many of these records were set in the last few years; it is one indication that more and more people in their 50s, 60s and 70s are taking to the open water and attempting these extreme swims,” explains Steven Munatones. “When the Half Century Club was first started, successfully completing a channel swim over the age of 50 was considered an incredible achievement. Nowadays with so many people in the second half of their lives taking to the world’s oceans, it seems that doing a channel in your 50s and 60s is almost an expectation for veterans of the sport. This is a remarkable mindset transformation that is unparalleled in endurance sports in the early 21st century. But, of course, completing a channel swim after the age of 50 remains a remarkable testament to swimmer’s physical condition, mental fortitude, and passion for adventure, challenge and the open water.

And there is a whole generation of 30-somethings and 40-somethings who fully intend to continue their open water swimming career for decades. I think these current records (see below) will continue to be rewritten for generations to come.”

Cook Strait:
* Male: Toshio Ogawa (Japan) age 60 in 11 hours 51 minutes from south to north in 2015 [shown above]
* Female: Dr. Marilyn Korzekwa (Canada) age 58 in 11 hours 34 minutes from south to north in 2016

English Channel:
* Male: Dr Otto Thaning (South Africa) age 73 years in 12 hours 52 minutes from England to France in 2014
* Female: Pat Gallant-Charette (USA) age 66 in 17 hours 55 minutes from England to France in 2017

Tsugaru Channel:
* Male: Toshio Tominaga (Japan) age 73 in 9 hours 58 minutes from Honshu to Hokkaido in 2016
* Female: Pat Gallant-Charette (USA) age 61 in 19 hours 36 minutes from Honshu to Hokkaido in 2012

Molokai Channel:
* Male: Mike Spalding (USA) age 60 in 15 hours 15 minutes from Molokai to Oahu in 2007
* Female: Linda Kaiser (USA) age 57 in 15 hours 0 minutes from Molokai to Oahu in 2007
* Female: Liz Fry (USA) age 57 in 17 hours 30 minutes from Molokai to Oahu in 2016

North Channel:
* Male: Graeme Lowe (Jersey) age 50 in 12 hours 27 minutes from Northern Ireland to Scotland in 2015
* Male: Fergal Somerville (Ireland) age 50 in 12 hours 21 minutes from Northern Ireland to Scotland in 2013
* Female: Pat Gallant-Charette (USA) age 65 in 14 hours 22 minutes from Northern Ireland to Scotland in 2016

Strait of Gibraltar:
* Male: Dr. Euler Konrad Paul Herbet (Germany) age 74 in 4 hours 9 minutes from Spain to Morocco in 2009
* Female: Carol Sing (USA) age 64 in 5 hours 27 minutes from Spain to Morocco in 2005

Catalina Channel:
* Male: Jim McConica (USA) age 64 in 10 hours 48 minutes from Catalina to the mainland in 2015
* Female: Carol Schumacher Hayden (USA) age 66 in 15 hours 2 minutes from Catalina to the mainland in 2016

Copyright © 2008 – 2021 by World Open Water Swimming Association

Steven Munatones