I Don’t Want to Swim Slower as I Get Older

December 15, 2023

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about masters swimming. But it was really about the concept of improvement. I ended the post with the line, “Life is better lived when we are living to get better.” I still strongly believe in that statement. I love it when I can see that I am indeed improving in certain areas, and I really don’t like it when I’m actually regressing.

My golf game was the best it has ever been back in 2022, about a year after I retired the first time. Then I went back to very full time work, and when I retired again, it was like I was starting over. Turns out, working 60 or 70 hours a week does not leave a whole lot of room for refining my golf game. But now, in retirement #2, I’m on the road to improvement again. Slowly.

I enjoy the journey – I have friends I play with weekly, and I have plans to play with my talented son Ryan several times in the next few months. No matter who wins (and he wins 99% of the time), I love every chance I get to play with Ryan. But I’ll say it – when lightning strikes 1% of the time, it’s pretty nice! (When Ryan read that “pretty nice” statement, he got a little upset. He reminded me that every time it happens, I make a big deal of it, write it down in Evernote, and talk about it nonstop for the rest of my visit. He may be right about that. Like I said, it’s pretty nice!)

As much as I love golf, I’m even more invested in swimming. It’s an activity that gives me so much of what I’ve been writing about – strength building, increasing cardiovascular capacity, and a surprising amount of social interaction. And, several months into my return to regular workouts, I feel like I’m getting stronger and a little faster. So when Coach Nancy Reno asked me . . . repeatedly . . .  if I would be swimming in a swim meet with our masters team, I reluctantly said yes. Even though it was a three-day investment of my time — that’s a lot of missed pickleball opportunities– I knew it would be a good test of how fast this old guy can still swim.

For non-participants, swim meets aren’t the most exciting of events. But for those of us actually in it, there is a lot going on, and so much to appreciate and celebrate:

  • It takes work to put on a swim meet. Kudos to all of the coaches and volunteers who organize everything and make it happen. I don’t have an exact number, but I’ll bet there were close to 100 volunteers, without whom the meet could not have happened. It’s a lot of work, but from what I could see, they were truly enjoying themselves.
  • There were over 400 swimmers, ages 25 to 95.
  • Quite a few world records were broken. Records are kept for every event in every age bracket. The highlight for me was watching an 80-year-old male swim the 100 meter butterfly in a minute and twenty-five seconds. He looked powerful and smooth the whole way. I think I could have stayed with him for maybe one lap, then he would have left me in his wake. Incredibly impressive.
  • I swam on two relay teams – the first time I’ve done that since I was 18 years old. It was a blast, and I enjoyed those races most of all.
  • Our Conejo Valley Masters team finished in 5th place in the meet. For our team, and I’m guessing for every team competing, there was an overwhelming sense of camaraderie. We had a team dinner together, we laughed during down times, we cheered each other on during our events, and we all left feeling like we had accomplished something together. I guarantee that other teams felt this same sense of togetherness and accomplishment, though we probably did it a little better. I give Coach Nancy so much credit for building a positive swim culture that enriches all of our lives far beyond swimming.

I love swimming for all of the health benefits it gives me. But, there’s also a competitive side of me that wants to swim fast. In terms of my own performances in the 50m, 100m, and 200m freestyle events, I was . . . disappointed. I expected more out of myself. My times were slower than I had hoped for, and I felt a little lost in my swims. So in the spirit of continuous improvement, I started looking at what could have gone better:

  • First and foremost, I need to work harder. I have been swimming three days a week. That’s not enough. Starting last week, I upped my time in the pool to four days a week. My friend Wayne told me a long time ago that three days a week keeps him in shape, while four days makes him stronger. Fine, Wayne. I’ll listen to you. I haven’t seen you in over a year, and I still hear you harassing me.
  • I realized that I’m the same caveman swimmer in meets that I was back in high school. I have never been an intellectual swimmer – my plan has always been to dive in the water and swim as fast as I can, with each lap getting slower because I’m getting more tired. I’m just now starting to believe that there may be more to swimming than that.
    • Note: Coach Nancy reads these blogs, and I know she is shaking her head right now. She’s been telling me, repeatedly, that I need to make a plan for my races. I never even told her about my caveman plan. OK, Nancy. I’m in. Sometimes I’m pretty dense. Right now, a good number of readers who know me well are nodding vigorously in agreement with that dense comment. You all know I don’t like any of you, no matter how right you might be.
  • Finally, I was nervous before my events. That’s something new for me. Cavemen don’t get nervous. My usual thinking is no thinking. Dive in. Swim fast. Hit the wall. But it was different this time.

Here are some thoughts that I will focus on to address the issues above:

  • Most of us get butterflies before a competition, but nervousness is too much. I read a Chinese proverb that goes, “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” I need to be who I am.
  • Jim Afremow writes, “Stop stressing yourself out about winning or losing. If you focus on the process, the score (or the time) will take care of itself. Execute your game, or race plan, step-by-step, thinking only of the next step to take.”
  • And this may seem like a little much, but I was inspired by former Navy Seal Jason Kuhn, who now spends time helping athletes and corporations to be their best. In his Navy special operations days, when he was being fired upon and had to return fire, his first inclination was to trust his instincts, and that resulted in wildly ineffectual firing. But as he learned to trust his training, he was able to slow his mind down and focus on the sight of the gun barrel. Swim meets are not a life or death situation, but I can learn from this strategy. To me, that means I dive in the water and see/feel/trust what I have trained for: glide, kick, rise, left arm pull, left arm out of the water – focusing on each stroke, made as perfectly as possible, moving through the water.

I have no dreams of being a top-ranked masters swimmer. All I want to do is get better. I still believe that my life is better lived by striving to not only be a better swimmer, but also a better golfer, pickleballer, writer, cook, friend, father, and husband. I’m 61 years old, with a little more gray and a lot more aches and pains, but I’m still convinced I can do all of that. And I look forward to every day in my journey of life-long learning. 

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  1. Mark Massey says:

    Mike, I like this blog post because I have had similar experiences later in life with tournament skeet. We could talk for a week on the mental aspect of skeet…95% mental once you get the basics working correctly. Butterflies are okay at the beginning. It means you are alert and focused. But can’t let it take you over and distract you or make you question your abilities. “It is like me to break this target exactly where I want to break it.”. I may have told you I made the NSSA Krieghoff All-American honorable mention team for the 2022 year in my age group: 50-59. Basically means I was in the top 30 in the country in my age bracket. Fun to compete. I was doing 3 other things when I started skeet shooting in 2015: golf, biking, and pistol tournaments. Gravitated to what I was best at and dropped the other 3 in short order. “Pretty nice” when you win!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Nice to hear from you, Mark. I thought you might get something out of this, as I know you compete. Congrats on all your success in skeet. Very cool! Unlike you, I’m not dropping my other passions. I know it’s a bad plan, but I want to improve in all of them!

  2. Bill Sampson says:


    My nextdoor neighbor was a full-time LA County Lifeguard and as a young man was inducted into the Helms Athletic Hall of Fame. He did not tell me of that – his late wife did. He once told me how he marveled at BJ and the other masters swimmers you know in Malibu that they were swimming the same times they did in college. I told him that was no big deal – so do I. You’ve seen me swim so I hope you can appreciate the humor.

    I’m sure you’ll keep improving – whether that translates to faster becomes a little more difficult on the downslope. As you recently said, look at the windshield, not the mirror.



    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I get your dry humor, Bill Sampson, and I can see the twinkle in your eye as you’re writing it. Thank you for that.

      Thanks for your encouragement.

      And the windshield comment is actually very interesting. I wonder if my attitude is consistent with that. I’m certainly looking through the front windshield, but is the rear mirror clouding my vision? I’ll keep thinking.

      Thanks as always.

  3. Daniel Wren says:

    Great writing as always.

    We should always be striving to get better. About five years ago I ran a 15k that I hadn’t really prepared for. I knew it was coming for months but like your friend said about the number of days per week that you put in translates almost perfectly with running. I was putting in three days per week max.

    On race day at about the 10 k mark I was beginning to struggle. I’ve run this exact race four times and this was my worst time by a long shot. After the race I walked directly to my car and sat down with the driver’s door open.

    An older gentleman who appeared to maybe in his early 70’s walked to his truck which was parked next to mine. I was still huffing and puffing to catch my breath. The gentleman asked if I was alright. I said yes but I was paying the price for not properly preparing for the race. I asked him how he had done and he replied that he had won the Masters division but didn’t quite make the time that he wanted because he threw up three times over the last mile.

    I mentioned that I had just heard of an eighty something man who had run a sub four hour marathon. He immediately responded with the mans name and said the man had run a sub three hour marathon at 75. The gentleman then tells me that he is eighty two and that he and the man in the article were great friends and that they often traveled together to different marathons.

    My pride having already been wounded by my poor performance, and then this world class Masters Marathon runner was putting salt in the wound when I asked what his time was in the race. Of course it was faster than I had ever run that race.

    Keep pushing to get better. Aim for those Masters records!

    And least keep writing your blog. I look forward to reading it.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Dan. Great story. You’re fighting a bigger challenge than I am. I’m just comparing myself to my younger self. You’re doing that and comparing yourself to these amazing athletes who should only inspire us. I’m not aiming for those records, just trying to get better. Thanks for your encouragement.

  4. Dermot Stoker says:

    Wow, great stuff Mike, looking at my Golf game recently I realize I should probably try out for the Olympics, not in Golf, but for Javelin Catching. It’s incredibly Bad, my Index is 11, up from an 8. No wonder antidepressants are making the Pharmaceutical companies such a great investment. We have played many rounds together, and always had ample time to enjoy the hysterics of the game, laughter is a huge part of Golf, if you’re able to laugh that is. Of course as we age, our physical systems scream out occasionally in distress, thank goodness we have Tylenol, and other Meds to keep the discomfort at bay, for awhile anyway. All in all, we just have to keep moving, and remember the sage advise from Toby Keith, “Don’t let the Old man In” an incredible song he wrote for Clint Eastwood. Check it out its probably his best. I’ll book us a Tee Time Mike, Cheers, Dermot

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Those 180 yard drives are consistent though! Please don’t sign up for javelin catching. The LA Olympics will be here in 5 years, and I don’t want to see you out there. Golf’s a fickle game, and I have every confidence that you will see those scores go down again. I look forward to playing soon.

      Also – I love the Toby Keith Song. I wrote about it almost two years ago, and it’s one of the most popular posts I’ve written. https://drmdmatthews.com/sing-it-with-me-dont-let-the-old-man-in/

      Cheers back at you.

  5. Ted Briscoe says:

    Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light! Love it Mike…

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      So good to hear from you, Ted! What a perfect poem to bring up. I just re-read Dylan Thomas’s poem, and it means more now than it ever has. I had forgotten all about that. Did we read that in 11th or 12th grade? I’m guessing we did. Like all great poetry, it better says in a few words what I was trying to say with way too many. Thank you again.

  6. Susan Samarge says:

    What a great read. Thanks for sharing, Mike. I appreciate your self-reflection, and in the humorous manner in which you share it with us! Can’t wait to hear about your next swim meet (because we all know it’s coming!). Have a wonderful holiday!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thank you, Susan. Yes, it’s coming. Maybe in January. I’ll share the results, good or bad. Thanks for your encouragement and for reading, and you have a great holiday too.

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