Donna Edelbaum is an unusual state-record holder.

At first assessment, the 77-year-old Union resident does not seem competitive. If you ask her about it she might say that is because she never was. She never even competed in sports until she was age 41.

So, it may come as a surprise that she is not only an avid butterfly swimmer, but broke the Maine 200-yard fly record for those ages 75-79. And the butterfly is by far the most difficult of the four swim strokes (freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke are the others) and 200 yards is a grueling distance.

Edelbaum, who has been an occupational therapist and special education teacher, broke the record March 12 at a New England Masters championship meet in Cambridge, Mass., with a time of 6:13.15 (corrected). She also won four other New England titles that weekend and was on three winning relay teams, two of which — the 55-and-older 400-yard medley relay and the 65-and-older 200-yard freestyle relay — set New England records.

Oh, and that meet was her first competitive swim event in about 16 years.

Impressive, don’t you think?

While holding any state record is impressive, Edelbaum downplayed the accomplishment at first.

“My first thought, quite frankly, was, ‘Okay, you are the only one out there, so big deal,’” she said, given the fact there was no one else but her in her age group.

She then thought the accolade should go to younger people making “stupendous” times. However, her friend and supporter, Bill Jones of the Penobscot Bay YMCA masters swim team, made her realize the extraordinary part.

“The fact that you’re doing it is the thing that you should think about because not many people [your age] are doing it,” she said Jones told her.

Early water lover

Edelbaum started swimming at at age 3 when her dad, a member of the National Guard, would take her to Florida. There, with her father, she fostered a love for the water.

“I fell in love with the saltwater, the fish, and the feeling of the waves and the surf and it got in my blood and it stayed with me my entire life,” she said. She even said that she doesn’t feel as comfortable on land. Klutzy, even.

In fact, other than hiking and biking she did in her younger years, Edelbaum never participated in competitive sports in her youth, including swimming.

It was decades after she learned to swim, when she was age 41, and living in Marblehead, Mass., that she started to swim competitively. There, she was convinced to compete by a group of masters swimmers at her local YMCA.

“That’s usually the way people get started,” she said. “There are usually sparkplugs around them and they say, ‘Listen, you could do that, you could do another lap. Why don’t you go to a meet with us?’”

Edelbaum said before she never even thought to time herself, but once she got going it was hard to stop.

She would set times with her friends and set goals and learned much about herself.

“Then I realized how competitive I was,” she said. “I didn’t know. I was sort of competitive about maybe some other things but not so much. There is something that clicked with looking at the clock and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I beat that!’ ”

Around this time, in 1972, Edelbaum competed in her first swim meet.

At the meet, her friends convinced her to swim the mile. According to her, she was so slow that the custodian was cleaning the floors, spilling chemicals into the water, when she finished.

“I think the fact was [because] I was able to get through that mucky, awful swim that everything else looked a lot easier after that,” she said.

Just like flying

Around this time Edelbaum also started swimming the butterfly, a notably difficult stroke.  For fun, her friends decided to do the fly as well and Edelbaum joined, even though she knew little about it.

“I thought, wow this feels good; this feels better than everything else,” she said. “So that’s when I started. I sort of discovered it felt good to do it. It is like my body was designed more to do this than the other [strokes].”

She said the butterfly is really like flying.

“I imagine, that you know, I’m a bird that is lucky enough to go down in the water and go up, get air and go down again,” she said.

Since she started Edelbaum has not quit. She recognizes the stroke is difficult but thinks the main obstacles are mental, not physical.

For one, she believes that, with the proper breathing, many people would be able to get into the 100-yard fly, 200-yard fly, and mixed or medley events, which require the butterfly.

“The fact that they run out of air halfway through it and they think that they don’t have the strength whereas what they don’t have is the oxygen,” she said. “So I truly believe that practicing exhaling every workout and doing one exhale to a stroke, two, three, four ’till you get so you can get halfway across that pool on one breath blowing out all the time. I’ve seen it work with people and that seems to be the biggest barrier.”

She said the other barrier to swimming the fly is bursting, which is ironically helped with old age.

“If you can’t slow your pace down, you are finished,” she said. “And the odd thing is that as you get older and get more patient and don’t mind blowing out and doing these drills over and over again, you can get so that you can relax.”

Chlorine allergy

After 25 years of passionate swimming, Edelbaum had to quit. She had started to develop a chlorine allergy over the years in the pool and eventually is was too severe to handle.

“It was devastating because that was one of the core things of my life,” she said of swimming in the pool. “That’s a thing that kept me feeling like I was really myself. I could do some pond swimming but there weren’t many ponds around in Marblehead or in Massachusetts that were familiar to me.“

She tried other activities, but nothing filled the gap of swimming or the participants.

“There is something very energizing about not only swimming, but having people who [don’t] lack enthusiasm,” she said.

However, Edelbaum found a solution to her problem. Around 13 years later she was able to get back in the pool thanks to an acupuncturist who, according to her, took the allergy away.

Then, in 2001, she moved to Union in search of open space and “trees that are allowed to stand.”

When she moved to the area she was reluctant to get back into swimming until she met a group of swimmers at the Penobscot Bay YMCA. Their enthusiasm and positive attitudes got her back in the pool, and ready for competition.

It is that kind of attitude that drew her into masters swimming and it was that attitude she saw at her March meet where she set the state record and won New England titles for her age group.

“It was one of the grandest meets because everyone there had energy and was boosting for everyone else,” she said. “I think what made it so unique and what made it so wonderful about masters swimming is that there is no ageism, there doesn’t have to be elitism, [there are] beginners, intermediates and hot swimmers all in the same place all cheering for everyone else.“

Despite her success, Edelbaum is a reluctant champion and took the state butterfly record with hesitancy and a level head.

“Quite frankly, I thought, ‘Well, if you live long enough you are going to be champion of the world,’ ” she said.

And Edelbaum is champion of the pool — a place that essentially has become her home away from home.

VillageSoup sports staff can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by email at