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New lease on life for senior swimmer

/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s a routine for Vladimir Ouchakof: Wake up early, pack his bag with a towel, swimsuit, a swim cap and goggles, go to the pool.

Stretch. Place a plastic-wrapped note card at the end of the lane, so the black-inked workout plan won’t smudge. Ease into the water.

Swim the distance of the black line at the bottom of the pool 120 times, the equivalent of 3,000 yards.

Two hours later, the 80-year-old is finished.

“I have enough energy, and I have enough stamina to endure fatigue,” he says. “That is why I swim.”

Ouchakof is one of hundreds of elderly swimmers nationwide who swim competitively. Some were swimmers from youth. Others swam in college or picked the sport up later in life. Ouchakof began competing at the age of 65.

In August, he was one of only a handful of competitors older than 80 at the United States Masters Championships held at Rutgers University.

Since competing in his first race about 15 years ago, Ouchakof has traveled to six countries and several states for competitions. He competes on average 20 times a year.

At some competitions, he swims every event offered.

The sport has become his life. The license plate on his station wagon reads, “I SWIM.” He has countless T-shirts with swimming logos. Taped above his desk, a hallway mirror and on a night stand in his home is a typewritten slogan: “Swimming is the only sport where everybody comes out clean.”

“When we go on vacation, what do you think he tries to find out first? Where is the pool,” said his wife, Josephine. “He’s a compulsive guy.”

A German-born Russian who grew up in France, Ouchakof attributes much of his success in the sport to having a second chance. He was no stranger to athletics; as a young man he competed with rowing teams and the French national volleyball team.

He started smoking during World War II when food rations weren’t enough to feed his family. Four decades and hundreds of cigarettes later, he was sitting at his desk at Windsor’s Combustion Engineering when he was gripped by chest pain, and he began to jolt uncontrollably.

“My body was as white as a sheet of paper,” he said. “The doctors, they told me, ’Your lungs are black like a coal.”’

Afraid of dying, he knew he had to exercise. He stopped smoking and got into the pool. He knew nothing about the technicalities of swimming and was only able to orchestrate a flailing dog paddle, like a child.

A fellow swimmer saw him at Cornerstone pool in West Hartford and told him about a swimming program for adults. He joined and began asking how the competitors around him did their different strokes.

“I never had a coach, just people who know how to swim who would watch me,” he said. “I asked questions. I asked hundreds and hundreds of questions. The best swimmers I see, I asked, ’Can you watch me?”’

Soon the awards came. Medals, ribbons, trophies and engraved silver plates. A designation from United States Masters Swimming that he was an All American in the 200-meter butterfly.

Two display cases in his basement filled up with medals. He hangs the latest bunches on a closet door; by last count, 664 medals.

He keeps count on a black chalkboard in his kitchen because, “My grandchildren, they ask, ’How many medals do you have?”’ he said.

While thousands of men and women aged 60 and older are registered with United States Masters Swimming, Ouchakof has only 165 other men registered in his 80 and older age group. At the recent nationals in New Jersey, fewer than 10 were entered in his age group.

He came home with more medals to add to the tally: a first place in the 400-meter individual medley, a second place in the 100-meter butterfly; third place in the 200-meter individual medley and 800-meter freestyle; a fourth in the 50-meter butterfly and ninth in the 200-meter backstroke.

It is harder for him now, too. Before a competition three months ago, he damaged the muscle in his right arm while stretching. (He jokes he was exercising like a 20-year-old.) Reaching up recently to pull down a bunch of his medals to show a visitor was a painful exercise.

But even with his injury, he plans to swim with one arm, adding one length each month until he is able to compete in his favorite event again, the 200-meter butterfly.

“Swimming is my medicine,” he says. “I can survive, but that is not enough. I have to know how to improve myself, and know what I can do.”