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Centenarians In The Open Water – Predictions for the Future

Taghi Askar represented Iran at the 2024 World Aquatics Championships in Doha, Qatar where he performed a one-meter dive to promote the 2024 World Aquatics Masters Championships.

Askar is 100 years old.

He completed an exhibition dive before the women’s 3m Springboard Final at the World Championships. In his youth 73 years ago, he won silver and bronze medals at the inaugural 1951 Asian Games and also was the first person to complete an armstand back somersault.

So we wonder…what is the equivalent for a 100-year-old open water swimmer to Askar’s 1-meter dive? 

500 meters? 1 kilometer? 1 mile?

In a calm lake? Along the coastline of a channel or bay? In the rough water of an ocean?

When I think of all the current septuagenarians and octogenarians who still swim well in the open water around the world, I am very confident over the next 10-30 years, we will see many centenarians competing in 1-3 km open water swims in various open bodies of water.

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, 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.

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 more Americans 65 years and older (77 million) compared to Americans under the age of 18 (76.5 million). 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.

Will these changes impact the open water swimming world? Most certainly.

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.”

In many cases, swimming remains a part of the swimmers’ exercise program and lifestyle throughout their lives. I am looking forward to the year 2050.

Will Olympic champions Ferry Weertman (58 years old) and Maarten van der Weijden (69) still be swimming? Undoubtedly.

Will Oceans Seven swimmers Kimberley Chambers (74), Elizabeth Fry (91), and Antonio Argüelles (91) still be swimming. I think so.

Will cold water specialists Ger Kennedy (81) and Lewis Pugh (81) still be swimming? Most likely.

What about other celebrated swimmers like Ned Denison (92), Pat Gallant-Charette (99, shown below), Jim McConica (100), and Michael Read (109)? Will they still be swimming in 2050? I certainly hope so.

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, who has completed the Oceans Seven, said, “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 said, “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 says, “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. Swimming has always been a positive force in my life. I feel very fortunate to have that stability.”

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.”

Lifelong swimming veterans Nora Toledano, Elizabeth Fry, and Sally Minty-Gravett MBE shown above

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.”

Mexican Oceans Seven swimmer Antonio Argüelles thought he was old at the age of 40 when he first swam the English Channel in 1999. “[My daughter] 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, [my wife] 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, a renowned English Channel swimmer, said, “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 said, “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.”

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

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

Time will tell.

© 2024 Daily News of Open Water Swimming

to educate, enthuse, and entertain all those who venture beyond the shoreline

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