Adult swimming

Taking watery flight: Butterflier Edelbaum, 84, finds home in pool

Masters athlete does best to challenge herself in most difficult stroke
By Holly Vanorse Spicer | Aug 03, 2018
Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer Donna Edelbaum

Union — Each year, each person marks how many times around the sun they have traveled. Some record that number, and call it their age. Some say it is just a number, and it does not wholly represent how old they feel.

To Donna Edelbaum of Union, the only numbers she focuses on come in meters, yards, laps and breaths.

The 84-year-old has been a member of U.S. Masters Swim and has swum competitively more than 40 years. And, despite her age, continues to perform the difficult and grueling butterfly stroke.

Edelbaum, who has held national and world rankings, along with national records over those years, began swimming with the Masters’ program in 1973 in Marblehead, Mass.

The program was founded in 1970, and Edelbaum said that, at the time, there were only a few hundred other swimmers. Now the Masters’ Swimming boasts a membership of more than 65,000.

Growing up, Edelbaum's community did not have pools, and in college, women did synchronized swimming. Because of that, Edelbaum said she had never done any pool swimming, or competitive swimming.

“My friends, and my swim buddies, somehow coerced me into doing the mile,” she said of her first competitive swim.

In 1973, she went for that mile.

“It took me so long to do that first mile, that the cleaning crew were flashing the lights, mopping the floors, and were trying to get me out. But I was told, don’t worry about it, just keep swimming,” she said.

Edelbaum did just that, kept swimming, competing in swim events the next 30-plus years.

One of her key swim strokes is the butterfly.

Known to be one of the most strenuous swim strokes, the fly calls on the swimmer to have a strong upper body in order to move in what resembles a wave-like motion.

The stroke can be broken into separate parts involving the legs and a dolphin-like kick upward to bring the shoulders to the surface, and a downward kick to bring the shoulders back down. The arms begin with a pull from the hands in a semicircular motion, with the elbows positioned higher than the hands. Then the hands are used to push the body, as the swimmer uses their palms to push backwards through the water and under the body. Put together, the different parts of the stroke become synchronized, creating one, fluid, but strenuous, movement.

Edelbaum believes the butterfly has been given a bad name. She said that over her years of swimming, people have said that they see it as daunting, and that only elite swimmers are capable of swimming it.

"I am not an elite swimmer, I am a plugger," she said.

A plugger whom, even in her 80s, regularly competes in the 200-yard butterfly. In the spring, being the third of only four American women in the age group to complete the swim, Edelbaum swam her 200 yards to loud cheers and applause during the New England U.S. Masters’ championship.

She said that the key to swimming the butterfly is to sneak up on it. To do that, she said, one can break the stroke down into parts, practicing them gradually. When the stroke is learned, the distance it is swum can then be shrunken back from swimming a half-lap, to a full lap, then on to 100, or even 200 yards, one lap at a time.

“People say, what if I can’t make it to the end of the race? In butterfly, you’re allowed to take as many breaths as you want at the wall, also you can take as long as you want, also if you can’t make it, it’s no big deal — you tried,” she said.

Edelbaum also said she does not want to be one of the few people in her age group who can finish the 100 or 200 fly.

“I see superb swimmers that do a great 50 fly, but I’ll go further, I’ll ask why [and they say], 'Oh it’s too daunting, it’s too this, too that.' People take that attitude, they look at a pool and say, 'Oh I can’t get across there,' ” she said.

Edelbaum said that is where a swim buddy can be beneficial, because that swim buddy can watch as someone is swimming, and point out anything that may need change, adaptation, or practice.

She said talking to a swim coach can help as well.

"Coaches are very willing to share information," she said.

Competitive swimming, and pool swimming has not always been full of fun and reward for Edelbaum.

In 1994, Edelbaum competed in the Federation Internationale De Natation (FINA) World Masters Championships in Montreal.

After the championship, she found herself being forced to take a hiatus from swimming. A chlorine allergy kept her away from the pool for nearly two decades.

During her time away from swimming, Edelbaum moved to Maine. In 2009, she joined the Penobscot Bay YMCA, and it was during that same time, she dipped her toes back into the pool and began to swim — and got back into competitive swimming.

Until a car accident again took her back away from the pool.

Two years ago, Edelbaum was preparing to compete in the nationals for masters swim in North Carolina when she was involved in a car accident. The accident left her with nine fractures and scar tissue on her lungs.

After a hospital stay, and occupational therapy, Edelbaum found herself thinking about the pool.

“I developed a set of exercises that literally brought me back,” she said.

Using the pool, and what she knew from her background in occupational therapy, Edelbaum said she almost has completely recovered from her injuries.

Which brought her to a new venture: Swimming the 200-meter fly.

Before the event in June, Edelbaum said it was the one she was after, because not many complete it.

Measured in what is called long course meters, the pool is 50 meters long, and she had to swim a total of four times, or pool lengths. The 200-meter fly is a full 18 feet longer than what she swims doing the 200-yard fly, commonly swum in pools that are measured in short course yards (there are no meter pools in Maine, for example).

Edelbaum had intended to make the trek to Ohio early, so that she would be able to check out the pool, and see what it was like. Unfortunately, the trip was canceled, and Edelbaum opted for a different swim, the second annual Gary Isherwood Memorial Masters Swim in Bangor.

However, despite that missed trip, and opportunity to swim the 200-meter fly, Edelbaum is not letting it get her down.

“My birthday is coming up Aug. 18, so that will open up some more possibilities for the new year with the 85-89 age group, starting with a meet in September,” she said.

Edelbaum said she has never done any weight-bearing exercises. All of her exercise and training has been done in the water.

“I can swim a mile much easier than I can walk a quarter-mile, so I just go to the pool,” she said.

She also said she used to do a lot of biking.

Edelbaum attributes her love for swimming to moments spent in the ocean, at the age of three, riding on her father's back in the waves of the Atlantic, off of the coast of Miami.

"I was holding on to my dad when I was three years old in Florida. We went up and down the waves. That was when this whole passion started, at the age of three," she said.

Her father was a pilot in the National Guard, stationed in Miami.

"Miami was like a tropical paradise. There were hardly any hotels, and you could just go for miles. There were birds, jungles, and parrots," she said.

Edelbaum said she never really saw a pool during that time. The community she lived in growing up did not have a pool, and in college, more women participated in synchronized swimming than in competitive swim events.

When she was pregnant with her daughter, she said she developed an issue with her back, and her father convinced her to go to the pool.

"That's when the swimming began and started, and luckily, there were people," she said.

Edelbaum said that it is beneficial to have at least one or two people to swim with that will encourage one to go.

"Because many days, you just feel like you don't want to do it," she said.

Edelbaum's love for swimming extends beyond herself. She hopes that by talking with others, especially those closer to her own age, she can convince them to hop into the pool, and see that swimming is not as arduous as one may think.

"Many people feel they're not good enough to join a master's group. They may not be competitive in nature, or sure of their strengths," she said.

She added that some may even feel they are not advanced enough to join a group.

“A great deal can be accomplished in solo swimming. One can ask a coach, or a skilled swimmer for feedback or instructions," she said. "One can take as many extra breaths between sets as needed."

Solo swimmers, she added, also have a chance to listen to their own bodies, and set the pace accordingly. She said that it is important to do what feels good, and that it reflects relaxation which is essential in keeping the joints and tendons in working order.

She strongly feels it is important for solo swimmers to have a swim friend or buddy along. Someone who knows a bit more than perhaps they do, and can offer encouragement.

She also urges others to not let disability deter them from trying, adding that for every challenge, there is adaptation that can be made.

"It you can't make it yourself, have somebody look at it," she said.

“The people who really have the courage are the people I see in the parking lot, with a walker, or a cane, or maybe even one leg, a person with a stroke, and they get here somehow. They either have someone drive them, or they drive themselves,” she said.

“They are the people that are courageous and have persistence,” she added.

Outside of swimming, Edelbaum keeps busy with a love for classical piano.

"I've been a student of classical piano my whole life," she said.

She also collects anonymous 19th-century photos. She said that they re photos she finds around flea markets and photo shows. Edelbaum said that, while she is not a professional writer, she enjoys writing poetry. She added she also likes to sketch and draw landscapes, trees, and people.

“The older I get the more time I need rest between whatever I’m doing,” she said.

She said that after she swims, and during her recovery time, instead of looking at the clock, she is counting her breaths.

"It keeps me in mind of getting enough oxygen, and gets my mind off the 'am I going fast enough?' " she said.

"It's a relaxing kind of thing to take the time," she said.

How to swim the butterfly
(Source: SwimTechnique TV)
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