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The Baltimore Sun

Ellicott City woman still setting swim records at 91

The year Doris Russell swam in her first meet, Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his first term as president, John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd were slain by FBI agents and F. Scott Fitzgerald published "Tender is the Night."

Seventy-seven years later, the long-time Ellicott City resident is not only still swimming regularly, she's still breaking records.

"Swimming keeps you young," Russell, 91, declares. "It's the fountain of youth!"

Over the decades, Russell has collected 84 medals from U.S. Masters Swimming competitions across the country while swimming for the Maryland Masters, a team she joined in 1974.

Recent accolades put the nonagenarian in the news yet again: In April, she and three teammates broke two records at the YMCA Master Nationals competition in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., winning handily in the 85-plus age bracket for the 200-yard mixed medley relay and the 200-yard mixed freestyle races.

She's also set numerous individual records at the Maryland Senior Olympics, in which she participates every year.

Russell says she inherited her considerable aquatic prowess from her father, Harry Baugher, a longtime swim coach.

She can even thank the sport for introducing her to her future husband, Jim, a diving champion whom she met when both swam at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in Baltimore, which is now owned by 16-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. Their courtship unfolded in the pool's lap lanes and near the diving board, resulting in a long marriage and eight children.

Russell says she'd swim every day if she could, but since she willingly surrendered her driver's license four years ago, she can't get everywhere she'd like to be nowadays. Her legs have been weak for a long time and osteoporosis now causes her to use a cane or wheelchair on occasion. But neither of these life changes has slowed her down very much.

"I was blessed with a strong upper body and I just pull my legs along in the water," she said. Even recent oral surgery only caused a 48-hour glitch in her practice regimen. Once she was cleared by her physician, the pool was the first place she wanted to go.

Madame Butterfly

The 5-foot-tall queen of the butterfly stroke, who teases that constant exposure to water has caused her to shrink four inches, has captivated the management and staff of Columbia Swim Center, where she swims laps for an hour three times a week.

"I've never seen her come in with a frown," said Brandon Thornton, the assistant operations manager at the Columbia Swim Center. "Every practice is like Christmas to her."

The butterfly is a very powerful stroke that requires a lot of coordination to keep the body in motion, he said. But her form and technique are what "get her into the groove" and propel her through an average of 40 laps in the 25-yard pool.

"When she comes in it's a pretty big deal, since she's our most senior member. We make a lot of noise and ask about her upcoming meets," Thornton said.

"Customer service may be part of the job, but she makes it really easy to take interest. She's all that and a bag of chips, if you know what I mean."

Since adding the complex stroke to her repertoire at age 70, Russell has cornered the market on butterfly paraphernalia, from T-shirts to miniature sculptures. She even named her 11-year-old cockapoo Butterfly. She pampers herself by getting a manicure that features butterfly emblems on the fingernails of her ring fingers, which she shows off when playing cards, another lifelong hobby.

"I've been playing bridge since I was 10," said Russell, who belongs to two clubs that are comprised of members in their 60s and 70s. "Of course, lots of my partners have passed away, but I'm still kicking."

Still, swimming remains her all-time love. The much-honored athlete and her late husband chose to settle in the Valleymede area off Saint John's Lane with their brood in 1966 because of the house's proximity to North Saint John's Swim Club, which still operates.

Family of swimmers

Swimming and academics were the couple's twin focuses for their large family.

"My parents made sure we all were swimmers and we all went to Catholic schools and that meant we had two outfits — a uniform and a bathing suit — so we were always in one or the other," said Gale Mackison, 60, who is Russell child No. 5. A retired Montgomery County physical education teacher who spent most of her childhood in Baltimore, she now drives from her Woodbine home to take her mother swimming and to other appointments.

A framed black-and-white photo of the family in their bathing suits, which appeared on the Aug. 23, 1959 cover of the Baltimore Sun's Sunday magazine, hangs by the front door in Russell's house. Kim Morris, the youngest of the eight Russell kids, hadn't yet been born.

"Sometimes we tape on her photo on there" to create a true family portrait, Mackison said, laughing.

When her parents owned the B + R Athletic Club in Baltimore in the 1960s, Mackison recalled how all eight kids were part of a family act that involved synchronized swimming, tandem diving, relays and humorous skits.

"Swimming has been a good influence on my family," Russell said, noting that most of her kids ended up as a coach or life guard, some as professionals.

The Russells' club hit upon hard times after riots broke out in Baltimore following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Russell said, explaining that "people just wouldn't come downtown anymore."

Nonetheless, she has fond memories of those years and of attending Notre Dame Preparatory School, which inducted her last year into its Athletic Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 1938.

"I want to keep on doing what I do," Russell said, with urgency in her voice. "My goal is to still be swimming when I hit the 95 to 99 age bracket.

"And I hope to be around to see Willard (Scott)," said Russell, referring to the NBC personality who announces the birth dates of seniors aged 100 and older and shows their photos on "The Today Show."

While she doesn't keep track of her times, Russell is determined to improve on those times and still wants to win.

"Everyone at the swim center calls me grandma and they all say I'm their inspiration," Russell said.

"I get up and thank the Lord every day for what he's given me and he's given me a lot."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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    Russell still swims regularly at the Columbia Swim Center, where she is a staff favorite. "She's all that and a bag of chips, if you know what I mean," says Brandon Thornton, assistant operations manager.

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