Smokin' Senior

Walla Walla swimmer Suzie Aldrich smashes through the record books at the Washington Senior Games earlier this month.

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Senior super swimmer Suzie Aldrich does the backstroke in the YMCA pool. Aldrich recently won four gold medals and broke four Washington State Senior Games records.

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Golden girl Susie Aldrich poses in the YMCA pool with her four gold medals.

For Suzie Aldrich, it's about being a Ponderosa Pine.

That means rising tall to her full height of 6-foot-1, holding her head back and walking with pride.

If she's a little intimidating, that's OK.

An interesting mental image for a swimmer, to be sure. But it's worked.

Aldrich smashed through Washington Senior Games records July 23-24 in Olympia, swimming the backstroke in four races, winning gold in all four and more than comfortably leading the pack - and sometimes the entire pool.

"I'm thrilled, absolutely thrilled," Aldrich said a couple of days after the games. "I'm floating."

Not exactly. Floating requires inertia, a quality Aldrich may not possess.

Her time of 19.67 seconds in the 25 yard backstroke 41.53 in the 50, 1:34.66 in the 100 and 3:39.05 in the 200 all bested state records in her 65-69 age group. Previously it was 22.68 in the 25, 29.96 in the 50, 1:46.67 in the 100 and 3:52.6 in the 200.

Four golds and four records - not bad for a 68-year-old woman who thought she might just "splash around" in the pool last fall.

Aldrich had just finished repainting the inside and outside of her house and redoing her lawn, and found herself in need of a project.

So she went to the library and discovered the Senior Games, then headed to the YMCA. That's here she found out about the upcoming Eastern Washington Senior Games, held over Memorial Day weekend.

Although Aldrich hadn't hit the water since 1964, swimming came to mind.

She talked to Senior Games organizer Susan Anfinson, wondering if the goal was feasible.

"Susan said, ‘Of course it's realistic!'" Aldrich recalled, beaming. In fact, a smile rarely leaves her face. "I got a ‘Y' membership and decided to go for it."

Her first few dips in the pool weren't so great.

"I felt pathetic," she said. "I was so out of shape!"

But Nancy Rose, a lifeguard at the pool, observed a lap as Aldrich wondered if she could make it.

"I came up absolutely gasping, and Nancy is ecstatic and bouncing all over," Aldrich said.

Rose had just seen speed.

"You swam fast with an old school technique and you obviously weren't in shape," Rose said to Aldrich.

On that first lap, Aldrich had gone about 23 seconds across the meter pool, which is longer than the standard lap pool.

"But my breathing was just pathetic," Aldrich said. "I felt like a little newborn critter. I was so wobbly and really unsteady, I had no endurance … I felt pathetic."

Pathetic, maybe, but also the fastest thing a Walla Walla pool has seen in a while.

And it had been a while since Aldrich competed.

In 1962, she went into a competition at Eastern Washington University, but nerves got the best of her and she finished dead last.

"I cried," Aldrich said. "I told myself I'm never doing this again and I spent 48 years out of the pool."

Over the six months after hearing about the Senior Games, Aldrich, a fourth-generation Walla Wallan, became a staple at the Y's pool and weight room.

She built up her cardio endurance and also worked on upper body strength. At first, it was three days of weights and two in the pool, then two-three, then one-four, and finally all water.

"It took me a while, but I got back on the horse," Aldrich said.

One of the first things she had to modify was her technique and turns, Rose said. In the early 1990s, the national body governing swimming changed the legal backstroke turn - swimmers could flip over before touching the wall and push off again, in what's known as a tumble turn.

It was back to the library again. Aldrich found videos of the flip turn and worked hard to perfect it, learning to count strokes and base her position on the flags above her.

She also had to learn to use a diving block, which Walla Walla's YMCA doesn't have and is in use at Washington games.

But, she said, she couldn't have done it without the Y, and it was working on the small goals that helped.

"The Y's a trap, but it's a good trap," she said. "Everyone was pushing me, encouraging me ... Even people just asking ‘How's it going?' What do you say, ‘I think I'll quit'?"

She was upset when she left the YMCA more times than she cares to remember.

"I left in tears so many times," she said. "I thought, ‘What am I doing in the pool?' This wasn't easy."

After seven months of work from first dip to Eastern Washington Games, Aldrich was ready.

But she still battled her previous nemesis from her college days - nerves.

So Rose had an idea.

Aldrich walked into the pool area on the day of the games, a life vest clasped over her ‘Lamborghini,' her name for the pink-and-black suit she wears.

"I said the water's too cold to go into without a coat," Aldrich laughed.

The jacket did come off as the races began.

The move worked.

"I smoked ‘em," she said with a beam. "I absolutely smoked ‘em."

She knew then that her times were likely to beat Washington Senior Games records in the Y's 25-meter pool, which is shorter than the 25-yard pool at the State games.

Didn't seem to matter. Aldrich increased her speed over the extra 2.14 meters.

"I could've stopped and had tea!" Aldrich said, looking at her times.

Not bad for the former gymnast and marathon runner, who also passed the Seattle Police Department fitness test in the 1980s, before women were common in law enforcement.

Despite the obvious fitness benefits, Aldrich got to meet people, both in Walla Walla and from around the state and nation, and pick up some new skills.

"The attitude of older women needs to be that they can do this," Aldrich said. "It's not an event just for young kids or Olympic athletes. There's a social aspect - you're not sitting home knitting or watching TV or gardening."

There's a beauty element, too.

"And swimmers look younger than other people," she continued."Everyone there was really fit."

She's had an interesting life - from Wall Street to Seattle and back home to Walla Walla - and finally retiring in January 2009.

Clearly, she's not taking that retirement laying down.

Next, with the help of some friends, she's heading for Fairbanks, Alaska, for the International Senior Games Aug. 12-21, then back to Washington state's in 2012, when she hopes to qualify for the biennial 2012 National Games.

She plans to get faster, but says she needs some competition.

"If I can do it, other people can, too," she said. "I want them to beat me. Set their goal to beat me, so I can come back and beat them. I want to push people and I want to push women to be in their first class. I need help to make my projects interesting. Come out and make it your goal to beat me."

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