John Mahoney: Nearly 50 years later, competing in Fort Lauderdale


This commentary is by John C. Mahoney of Burlington, a retired middle school teacher. Among the over-50 Vermonters competing in the National Senior Games this week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he is the only male competing in swimming events.

As the second-youngest of nine, it took a while to graduate to the “Big Table” for Thanksgiving dinner. I finally made it. As a 20-year-old college junior, I’d been at the big table a while and was feeling my independence a bit and talked freely of my plans to skip family Christmas so I could get to Fort Lauderdale to train with a college swim team.

My college team wasn’t going, but a friend got me in touch with the Columbia coaches who were taking their team to Fort Lauderdale. Arriving before Christmas, we would train until after New Year’s.

Sharing my plans, my older sister informed me of the rules (unwritten or not). One didn’t skip family Christmas at home to go to Fort Lauderdale. Lesson learned. I didn’t have to go back to the little kids’ table, but I departed only after marking Christmas at home.

I had never been on a plane in my life. Starting from Burlington, we made two stops before we made it to Boston. The plane may have accommodated 12 passengers and, in the open cabin, we could chat with the pilot if we had any questions or if he wanted to give any instructions. We also would have heard of any hazards in the sky or on the ground in Berlin, Vermont, or Hanover, New Hampshire, because we could hear all the radio transmissions that the pilot did.

When I arrived in Florida, the team captains settled me into one of the multibedroom bungalows that were a stone’s throw from the International Swimming Hall of Fame. A routine developed pretty quickly. Morning practice followed by breakfast, later, lunch, a nap and some beach time. Later afternoon would find us back in the pool.

I was doing more daily yardage than I had ever done in my life. Sometimes afternoon practices were at local high school pools and it was a relief to get a break from the 50-yard pool. We were competing with other teams for lanes and time at the Hall of Fame pool, but on a few occasions we joined lots of other teams for a monotonous afternoon workout.

Fifty fifties on fifty. It seemed a pretty fair, if not daunting, challenge. But all who completed it felt that they had earned a badge of honor. Especially if a coach had decided to throw in a butterfly set in the middle of the fifty.

Besides the sheer size of the pool (I had never seen anything greater than 25 yards), I was impressed with the abundance of concrete in the pool construction and the lack of tile. Also impressive was the diving area, which included the usual 1- and 3-meter boards but also a platform tower that went to 10 meters. Some made the 10-meter platform another rite of passage. I passed on that.

On New Year’s Eve, we practiced at the Fort Lauderdale High School outdoor pool and watched the school’s marching band load onto a bus for an appearance in the Orange Bowl parade in Miami. That evening, we headed to the beach to check out the celebratory scene.

Apparently the previous year, municipal officials had been embarrassed by how things had gotten out of hand with revelers. There would not be a repeat occurrence. A very strong police presence included an armored vehicle with loudspeakers. It repeatedly issued warnings for miscreants who were thinking of stepping out of line. If you stopped on a street corner to speak to a companion, police were present immediately telling you to keep moving. There would be no assembly — lawful or unlawful.

Heading back to the bungalow, the Columbia captains treated us to steak and champagne and we retired before midnight.

Returning to Vermont I impressed my teammates with my color, and the training boosted me to my best college times by the end of the season.

I have not been back to Fort Lauderdale since that trip in the mid-1970s. Until now. The National Senior Games are occurring this month in Fort Lauderdale. I am gathering with over 700 swimmers, age 50 and over, to give it our best against competitors from all over the country. Thousands of other senior athletes will compete in other individual and team sports, many of them from Vermont.

In my chosen events, I have among the slowest times for my age group. But the Vermont Senior Games motto is Fitness, Fellowship and Fun. In my return to Fort Lauderdale, I expect that I will experience all three in abundance.

And maybe there will even be a visit to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, just for old times’ sake.

Read the story on VTDigger here: John Mahoney: Nearly 50 years later, competing in Fort Lauderdale .

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