Albert Woods, an 82-year-old swimmer who was named the Old Montauk Athletic Club’s athlete-of-the-year at its December awards dinner, feting the fact that he had as an 81-year-old won six national championships, has done it again.
In the recent national long course championships at Auburn University’s 50-meter, eight-lane pool bordered by stands that seat a couple of thousand, Woods won all three of his breaststroke events, the 50, 100, and 200, placed second in the 50 and 100 freestyle, and was a member of three of the championship Georgia masters group’s winning relay teams — the 200 men’s freestyle, the 200 mixed freestyle, and the 200 men’s medley.
As a result of his feats, Woods has been named — for the first time — a U.S. Masters Swimming All American, an honor he especially prizes given the fact that he did not swim in college, as did many of his peers, and only began to seriously pursue the sport after retiring about a decade ago.
In a letter to the Sag Harborite this past spring, Rob Butcher, Masters Swimming’s executive director, noted that Woods had the fastest times in three 80 to 84-year-old age group events in 2010, adding that “while other athletes talk about being number-one, you are!”
“You stand as a true example of what can be accomplished if mind and body join together while a clear goal is kept in focus.”
Used to training in the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter’s 25-yard pool, which was “much less than half the length of the one at Auburn that I just swam in,” Woods, who specializes in the breaststroke, said, “The bad news for me was that I wasn’t able to push off and coast as I would have been able to in a 25-yard pool where the turns are to my advantage, but on the other hand you do have more of a chance to get into the rhythm of the stroke in a long course pool. There are only two of these meets a year, the long course nationals and the short course nationals. Last year, this meet was in Puerto Rico. I won all three breaststroke events there too.”
Describing himself as a sprinter, Woods nevertheless swims long distances as well as sprints during the course of his regimen, which he has worked out with the Y’s aquatics director, Tom Cohill. “Early in the season I train for endurance. I work out on average four to five days a week at the Y. I do resistance weight training too, and stretch. The closer I get to competitions, the more speed work I do.”
He had joined the championship, 97-strong Georgia masters team, which is based in Atlanta, so that he could compete in relays as well. “Forty of the 97 members won gold medals at the long course meet,” said Woods, who won six of them.
While his times had been pretty close to the ones he’d done last year, he bettered his previous best in the 50 free. “I was seeded at 40 seconds, and I bettered that. I was 39-plus, which broke the Georgia state record for my age group. All the other times I swam were Georgia age group records too. The winner in the 50 free was 38-plus. I was in the far left lane, and since I breathe to the left I couldn’t see anyone else. He was next to me, and could see me just fine!”
He added that it was nice at his age to have competition.
With some leeway in the 200 mixed freestyle relay, the age of whose competitors could not be less than 320 all told, “we had as one member of our team a 95-year-old woman, Anne Dunivin, the oldest member of the Georgia masters squad. We balanced her out with a mere 74-year-old, Nana Whalen, who, of course, was a much faster swimmer. But Anne Dunivin did just fine. She holds all the Georgia records.”
As for the breaststroke, which Woods described as swimming’s “hardest, most complicated and controversial stroke,” Woods said “there are two approaches. One involves coming out of the water quite high and diving forward from that point. Your mouth is a foot-plus above the surface of the water. But any picking up of the head tends to make the legs go down — the body follows the head. So I try to get air without raising my head. The old frog kick has been de-emphasized. Instead, you try to keep a narrow silhouette to keep your body in a straight glide position. My kick, with the heels up behind my rear end, is strong, and rather than the old long sideways motion, my arms go out and back quickly.”
He hadn’t started out as a breaststroker, but as a freestyler, Woods said. As a 70-year-old reacquainting himself with the sport, he “couldn’t swim longer distances than the 50 and 100 free. I didn’t have the wind for the 200. But I wanted to do more events, so I decided to try the breaststroke. I had no idea I’d wind up being so good at it.”