Teeth chattering, thin arms slicing through the deep water, Doris Russell forges on. Never mind her 90 years, frail legs and leaky goggles. Time and again, Russell swims the length of the pool, mixing her strokes and adding lap after lap to her training grind.
Pause? Pshaw. A national age-group champion, she has come to exercise, not lollygag.
"It feels good in here," she said, touching the wall for the umpteenth time at the Columbia Swim Center. Then she turns and is off again.
"Got to keep moving," Russell said.
An hour later, she's done, having swum nearly three-quarters of a mile for the third time in a week. Not bad for a woman who's older than Esther Williams. If Russell was wrinkled when she got into the pool, she's even more so now.
But, oh, does she feel good.
"I've been in the fountain of youth," she said, "and I feel like a million dollars."
Unlike those seniors who practice water aerobics, Russell ratchets up her workouts -- with big results. In May, she won six gold medals at the U.S. Masters Swimming Championships in Atlanta. Victory was a given. In each event, from the 100-yard butterfly to the 500-yard freestyle, Russell was the only entrant in her age group (90 to 94).
On Sept. 11, she'll try for five more golds in the Maryland Senior Olympics at the Germantown Indoor Swim Center in Boyds. Russell already holds state age-group records in each event: the 50, 100, 200 and 500-yard freestyle, and the 50 butterfly.
Every birthday finds her swimming in uncharted waters.
"Until this year, I always had a lot of competition," she said. "But when you hit 90, there are very few swimmers left."
"I guess they all got old."
Quit? Never. In 1959, Russell told The Baltimore Sun that she would continue to swim late in life, "even if I have to go into the pool with a cane."
Now, 51 years later, age has taken its toll. She swims faster than she can walk. But she's still winning medals. At 70, Russell added a stroke to her repertoire, the butterfly, and has since broken national 85-to-89 age-group records in the event in both the YMCA Masters and the National Senior Games.
Madame Butterfly, they call her at major meets, from Syracuse to San Antonio, where she wows crowds with her geriatric performances.
"Doris is incredible," said Nancy Brown, one of Russell's coaches on the Maryland Masters team. "People cheer when she finishes a race, though she gets upset at that. She's very low-key about her accomplishments.
"She's a true mermaid, a role model for swimmers of all ages. If God doesn't take her from us, I think she'll keep on going."
In her Ellicott City home of 44 years, many of the hundreds of medals and prizes Russell has won spill out of drawers and hang from doorknobs. Heaven knows the whereabouts of the first award she won in 1934, at Druid Hill Park, as a 14-year-old student at Notre Dame Prep. Some trophies she passed on to her eight children and seven grandchildren. Others got broken or lost.
But Russell has never swum for fame.
"Something about that water is magic," she said. "Once you get in the pool, it's heaven, really heaven. And I love the smell of chlorine. When I get out of the pool, I smell my arms and smile. People think I'm crazy, but . . . it smells so clean."
She's an icon at the Columbia pool, where they always clear a lane for the club's eldest swimmer, who once hobnobbed with Olympians Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller, Hollywood's most famous Tarzans. As a teenager, in the 1930s, she swam with Weissmuller at the old Knights of Columbus pool on Cathedral Street.
"[Weissmuller] was in town to perform at the Hippodrome Theatre, and he stopped in for a swim," said Russell, who happened to be there. "He was huge. It was quite awesome."
She swam there with other movie stars as well, including the Three Stooges. Imagine cavorting in the pool with Larry, Moe and Curly.
"They were as funny in the water as out of it," she said.
Russell grew up in Forest Park, the daughter of a high school swimming coach, Harry Baugher (McDonogh and Mount St. Joseph). Her late husband, Jim Russell, was a three-time Maryland Scholastic Association diving champion at City College.
They bought their house, in Howard County, for its proximity to a community pool.
Russell's eight kids all swim -- three became coaches and another, Larry, is a lifeguard in Florida at age 50.
"Some of them learned to swim in the bathroom," Russell said. "Our son, Jimmy, used to dive off the toilet seat into the tub [under mom's watchful eye]. Oh, there was water all over the place."
At 90, Russell boasts that childlike exhuberance when she slides into the pool, those at the Columbia Swim Center say.
"She has as much fun as any 6-year-old," said Brandon Thornton, 27, of Columbia. "There's a purity to the joy she feels about being in the water."
Thornton, a Marine who served two tours in Iraq, said he was "blown away" by Russell's gritty workouts.
"She took a fall a few months back, but she still came here to swim, all bruised up," Thornton said. "I thought, 'Get out of here, go take a break.' But no. I was so inspired."
On her birthday in May, pool members and workers threw Russell a surprise party with pizza, presents and her very own swimming lane lined with balloons. Her favorite gift was a bathing cap, signed by all, with such comments as "You are my hero" and "Keep having fun."
"To watch Doris swim is truly awesome," said Corey Woo, acting general manager of the pool. "Her legs don't kick as good as they used to, but her arms pull very well. It's a quality stroke."
Woo said that Russell is "a motivator" for other senior members such as Joe Trunk, who, on this day, was chugging alongside the woman in the next lane.
"She's unbelievable," said Trunk, 74, of Columbia. "She just keeps going and going. God knows, I'd like to do that when I'm 90."
Russell has made allowances for age. Her osteoporosis keeps her from diving into the pool. And, at 5 feet, she stands 4 inches shorter these days.
"I have to swim a couple of extra strokes on each lap because I've shrunk," she said, shaking her head. "Oh, it's sad."
At the end, Russell said, when her time's up, she hopes she's there in the pool.
"I mean, I don't want to drown," she said. "But I'd like to just lie there and go peacefully, like, 'Here I am, Lord.' There's nothing better."
And when she reaches the pearly gates?
"There will be a pool right outside my door," she said. "That's what heaven is."
Never too old to stay fit
As director of sports medicine for Maryland SportsCare & Rehab, a 34-facility therapy chain, Brad Stickler sees a wide range of clients, nearly half of whom are age 60 or above. Here are his tips for seniors who want to stay fit:
1. Plan a daily, low-level exercise routine, even a 30-minute walk, to keep joints loose and lubricated.
2. Participate in group exercises with others your age or with the same physical conditions. The workout becomes a social event and motivational tool.
3. Warm up first. Stretch ankles and do arm rolls to get blood flowing. Don't just jump into the pool and start swimming.
4. Don't overdo it. Seniors take longer to recuperate. Exercise is good, but too much can be harmful.
5. Treat sore muscles with a cold pack for 10 to 15 minutes. Stay away from heat. Ice decreases both pain and inflammation.
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