Walla Walla swimmer displays backstroke of genius at Senior Games

Suzie Aldrich displays the trio of medals she won at the 2013 National Senior Games.

Suzie Aldrich displays the trio of medals she won at the 2013 National Senior Games. Photo by Donna Lasater.

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“Go, you little guppy!” the grandchildren of her friends shouted, as Suzie Aldrich prepared to swim a heat at this year’s National Senior Games. The nationals were held July 19-Aug. 1 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Aldrich had won medals before, but this was her first national competition. She joyously and humbly came home with a gold, a silver and a bronze medal in backstroke events.

More info

The National Senior Games Association can be found here.

For full results of the 2013 National Senior games, click here.

She had taken part in the senior games at the state and regional levels, then had been invited to the nationals.

“You have to be invited and you have to qualify,” she said.

State-level competitions are held on even-numbered years and nationals are held on odd years. So the nationals will next be held in 2015, this time in Minneapolis.

The games are a huge event. There are many different sports represented and many athletes over 50 years old.

In addition to swimming, some of the sports are archery, badminton, basketball, cycling, softball, swimming, tennis, track and field and volleyball. More than 10,000 athletes are estimated to take part in the competitions.

Aldrich counted about 650 swimmers, nine from Washington. “I was the only one from Eastern Washington,” she said.

Some contestants were in their 90s, and Aldrich thinks there were several older than 100 in the 2011 games in Houston.

The camaraderie — one of the things Aldrich loved about the experience — was fabulous.

She is a very active, energetic person, but she said she’d been “out of the pool for nearly 50 years.”

Years ago, she had a bad experience in a swim meet at Eastern Washington College. “I came in last. I was so humiliated. I wanted to crawl under the linoleum and die. So I said ‘never again.’ It was not fun.”

She went on with her life, career and challenging activities that were usually more male-dominated, such as mountain climbing and bicycling. She retired in 2007 and moved back to the Valley. A fourth-generation Walla Wallan, she grew up here, so coming home was natural.

By January 2011, after she fixed up her house the way she wanted, she was looking for something to do. “I looked up the Senior Games and thought ‘maybe I can do this.’”

Lifeguard Nancy Rose encouraged her. “I only know the backstroke; I was gasping and out of breath. I had no endurance,” Aldrich said. Then Rose said, “With some guidance you could be a threat.”

Self-motivated, Aldrich asked questions and researched the techniques of Olympians. “Your thumb comes up out of the water first, your arm goes up and the little finger hits the water first going back down. What about the head position? “I couldn’t get it. I was in tears, tangled in the ropes. This is not working. My body doesn’t want to work.”

However, she kept at it. She took gold in the backstroke at the 2012 Washington state senior games. She did the same at that year’s Alaskan games. Aldrich earned 11 gold medals in her first six months. She kept researching, practicing and swimming, eventually reaching this year’s Nationals.

“I cried when I heard that I won gold,” she said. “I knew I’d taken first in one heat but there were nine heats.” She checked the results and looked up from the bottom of the list, then saw her name at the top. Shocked, she found an official and said, “There’s a mistake here, my name’s on top.” Aldrich was told that she had won the gold medal and the tears just came.

Aldrich said she loved the excitement, the sounds, the smell of chlorine and the applause. “We are rooting for everyone whether they are first or last,” she said.

For seniors who want to get more active, she suggests beginning gently and staying hydrated.

Drink water. Make it more interesting — put a wedge of lemon in there with some ice, she said. “Get a good pair of shoes” she advises. “With a wide toe box. Your equipment is paramount. If you’re walking, walk with someone. Walk on safe, level ground. On sidewalks, watch those little ridges, the sections where you could catch your toe.”

She suggested the walking paths near Mill Creek or at a city park. If you’re exercising, make it a social thing — you can make friends and at the same time help others by checking on them.

Do everything you can to be safe, she said. “Watch where you walk, know the road. ... Know where there are tree roots. Trust me, you’ll fall if you’re not watching. Watch where you go and don’t overdo it. If you’re tired, find a bench and sit down.

“Be realistic with your goals. Be specific, make them measurable and have a time frame on them.”

Aldrich also recommends focusing on proper nutrition. “Eat. Be sure your body has fuel. Listen to your body. Then start out with gentle stretching.”

The hardest thing is starting, she said. Make an appointment with yourself. “If you had a child taking piano lessons and they didn’t want to go. You’d say ‘Get in the car. We’re going.’ You wouldn’t deny the child, don’t deny yourself. The hardest thing is putting your shoes on and going out the door. The hardest thing for me is putting my suit in the gym bag and getting out that door.”

Aldrich lives each day fully; she’s joyous and striving for balance. “I’m dancing on my edge,” she said.

Karlene Ponti can be reached at karleneponti@wwub.com or 509-526-8324.

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