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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Laura Val Represents The New Normal

Courtesy of Swimming World Magazine.

Laura Val is a well-known swimming icon. But her mind-shifting, epoch-making approach to improvement over the course of one's career bears further analyses, especially in light of being named one of Swimming World Magazine's Top 12 World Masters Swimmers of the Year.

Val grew up in California and was world-ranked in the 100m and 200m butterfly.

But times were different in the 1960s and 1970s - in ways that are unfathomable to contemporary swimmers. "I swam for the Mountain View Dolphins until I was 17 which was the oldest you could be on that team. Then I went to Foothill College and swam for the Foothill Aquatic Club under coach Nort Thornton until I turned 21 and retired," she explains.

She graduated from high school in 1969 when there were no college swimming scholarships available in America, so she had no college swimming opportunities.

"I quit swimming not because I was burned out, but because I was considered 'old'."

Once retired, Val did what former competitive swimmers did: they went on with their lives. "My 20’s were spent becoming a registered nurse, starting my career, getting married, and having 2 children."

But then Val discovered something that would forever change her life. A friend told her about masters swimming. "I discovered masters swimming in my early 30’s. It renewed my passion for training and competing. I feel a little cheated that I never had the college swimming experience. It seems to be a special bond that I missed out on."

Into her 30’s, 40’s 50’s and now 60’s, Val has utilized her undying passion into unprecedented swimming. "I have never slowed down. It is an important part of my life. It is my normal. It is my routine. I can tell you with certainty it is not because I didn’t achieve success as a youth, not trying to prove anything to anyone, not doing it so I can eat junk food, I’m doing it because I love to swim. Period."

So while she grew up swimming against Karen Moe, Lynn Vidali, Debbie Meyer, Lynn Collela, and Jane Swagery, legends of the 1960's and 1970's and training mega yardage, she has completely upended what swimmers can potentially do in the water as they age. "It was not unusual for me to go 20,000 meters in a day, 6 days a week. Today I rarely go over 5,200 per day. I average 6 days a week and go between 4,600 and 5,200."

But she is getting faster. Mind-boggling faster.

"I am swimming so much smarter today than when I was a kid trying out for the Olympics. I didn’t understand taper or pace or breathing patterns like I do now. For me it took 20 or 30 years to really learn how to swim right. I swam the 1968 Olympic trials in the 100m butterfly and did somewhere around a 1:07. At age 40, I did a 1:05."

What is possible? A world-class athlete, one of the fastest swimmers in the world in the 1960s in her teenage years, swimming faster as a 40-year-old.

But it was not only in one particular event that she improved. All of her best times performed during her teenage years were surpassed as she matured, worked full-time and raised children. "As a kid I never broke 56 in the 100-yard freestyle. At 49, I did a 53.2. I was never able to break a minute in the 100-yard butterfly as a kid, but I broke a minute at the age of 35, 40, 45 and 50."

Her constant improvement and comparison over the decades is telling and indicative of what can be possible. "When I was 55, I did a time in the 200 free that got me fifth at Senior National Championships when I was 19 years old. I would say between the ages of 40 and 50, I did my lifetime bests in every event, so I guess that’s when I peaked."

But Val continues to set age-group records and help others re-think what is possible.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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The Open Water Swimming Magazine is the monthly magazine entirely focused on open water swimming heroes and heroines of every age, ability, and background. Published by the World Open Water Swimming Association, the Open Water Swimming Magazine is a free benefit to WOWSA members.

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