BY MARY GOFEN
Why act your age? That has become my new mantra since turning fifty. To be clear, I’m not trying to fool myself or anyone else. I’m not pretending to turn back the clock. Fact is: I am middle-aged. Another fact is that life hasn’t stopped for me yet. So I have decided to embrace aging, to refuse to use it as an excuse, and instead to propel myself through life with a sense of adventure.
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None of the other alumni from my era were suiting up for the recent Stanford Varsity versus Alumni meet, which in many ways seemed the wiser choice. But, while trying to age with grace, I also want to grow old with adventure, so I put on a smile and entered the varsity locker room with recent graduate and 2016 U.S. Olympian, Maya DiRado (two gold medals, a silver, and a bronze). Maya, who wasn’t even born when I graduated from Stanford, couldn’t have been more welcoming.
Every year, Stanford’s world-class swimmers take a pause from their regular grueling schedule and spend an evening racing against a collection of former Stanford swimmers from different eras.
Many of my fellow alumni are not quite in the best shape of our lives, but no one likes to lose. So over the years, the alumni have established some unwritten rules.
We jump before the starting gun is fired, race as many as eight swimmers in a single event, and dive early on relay exchanges (making sure we don’t land on a teammate below). Last year, one of the men wore flippers, and this year, I saw a woman with a snorkel mask.
Whatever it takes!
I should mention here that I’m actually on the Women’s Swimming record board at Stanford. It’s at the bottom, below the listings of the actual events, in pretty small text. I should also mention that I donated the record board to the team. It was the only way I’d ever get my name on a Stanford record board, and as an added bonus, I don’t have to worry that freshman Katie Ledecky (five Olympic golds in 2016 and one gold in 2012) is going to wipe my name off it.
Maya noticed my red, white, and blue Speedo. “Hey, we’re wearing the same suit!” she said, and it was true, although she received hers as part of her U.S. Olympic team gear, while I had purchased mine at a spectator booth at the Olympic Trials in Omaha.
As my father might have said: “Just because you dress like Maya DiRado doesn’t make you Maya DiRado.”
Fortunately, the varsity swimmers recognized that even with an illegal head start, some of us alumni weren’t going to keep pace. In the 50-yard freestyle, Simone Manuel (two golds and two silvers in Rio) led the race, despite lollygagging her way across the pool, and graciously swam in place for a few seconds to let her opponents touch the wall first. (Swimming in place is a talent of its own—just try it.)
Stanford and U.S. Olympics Coach, Greg Meehan, smiled and laughed poolside, and he seemed to find a way to reach out to each swimmer. After my second race, in which I sprinted my little freestyle relay leg as fast I could, I was walking across the pool deck when Coach Greg said to me, “Mary, you’ve still got it.”
Now I was the one smiling.
And at that moment I realized that one of the Olympian qualities shared by the best coaches and swimmers alike has nothing to do with swimming and has everything to do with something much more important. That quality is kindness.