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A golden age for gold medals


Doris Russell has been there and done that when it comes to being interviewed about her swimming. Reporters started calling in the 1940s, when she and her husband were doing aquatics shows at Baltimore-area country clubs, as well as at the swank Pennsylvania golf resort then owned by Fred Waring, the famed singing troupe leader and radio star.

Something's made the papers every five or 10 years. There was one longer break while she and husband, Jim, best known as a diver, raised eight children, but the Russell kids made swimming news now and then, too.

So, here's what might be called a five-year update on Russell, the Ellicott City grandmother who was 80 the last time her swimming medals caught a reporter's eye.

Actually, little has changed for her competitively. She still swims year-round, mostly at the Columbia Swim Center in Wilde Lake village. She still competes in periodic age-group meets, still adds to her medal collection, still holds, at minimum, the national record for the 50-yard freestyle in her age group.

Of course, now she is 85 and the number of swimmers in her age group has shrunk a bit. She prefers to say there still are competitors in her age group, at least for most of her events. And there's hope, because in what's called masters swimming, a few swimmers in their 90s and even 100-plus still compete.

Just after her 85th birthday last month, Russell entered six events at the annual U.S. Masters Swimming Short Course Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and brought home six more gold medals that dangle on ribbons from a tall piece of furniture in her living room.

Next week, assuming an ankle she accidentally bloodied on a church kneeler last Saturday heals fast enough, Russell will be traveling again, this time to the National Senior Games in Pittsburgh, a Senior Olympics event expected to draw about 10,000 competitors in many sports, including swimming.

"I think things will be a little more competitive there," she said.

"I can swim better these days than I can walk," she said. "That's the truth, because my knees are bad. But I love to swim. Nothing's better for you. I'm telling you, swimming is the fountain of youth."

Her attitude is contagious.

"Oh, man, she's wonderful," said Nancy Brown, whom Russell refers to as her coach, although Brown, a Pasadena resident, head of the Maryland Masters Swim Team and a frequent winner in her age group in masters and Senior Olympics competition, said that's not really so.

"Doris goes to meets with us, but she trains on her own," Brown said. "She's incredible - testimony to what people can do if they stay active as they get older."

Her training regimen has changed little since Russell decided to get back into competitive swimming after her husband's death in 1983.

Russell goes to the Columbia facility at least three times a week ("four, if I can do it") and swims three-quarters of a mile - stroking end-to-end in the 25-yard pool about 50 times.

"It's intervals," she said, which means swimming some laps at a relatively relaxed pace but mixing in "hard" laps that push her capabilities. Those hard laps include freestyle and the butterfly, an exhausting stroke she did not attempt until she was 70.

This zeal for swimming began when Russell was a teenager in the Forest Park section of West Baltimore. It was bolstered when she and Jimmy Russell met during a college meet in Washington and continued with countless hours at the Meadowbrook pool in Baltimore's Mount Washington neighborhood.

The Russells, who in the early 1960s operated an athletic club near the old Western High School in Baltimore that the Baltimore Colts used as their fitness-training facility, were also instrumental in getting the North St. John's Swim and Tennis Club started in Ellicott City, not far from where she has lived for 39 years.

The Russells' five daughters and three sons all swim, as do all seven grandchildren.

"I got them in the water early," she said.

That has proven to be a great gift, said the youngest daughter, Kim Collins, also an Ellicott City resident who with husband Greg is a triathlete.

This weekend, Kim Collins, who was the first female lifeguard at Ocean City, hopes to complete the annual race across the Chesapeake Bay, starting at Sandy Point State Park. She sees it as a tribute to her mother, who entered the 1991 race but, like most other swimmers that year, got caught in a dangerous, overwhelming current and had to be pulled from the water.

Russell said she would still like to try the bay swim but thinks at her age it might be too much. Pool swimming, though - that's a different story.

"There are times now when I just don't feel like it, but I go to the pool anyway," she said, "and once I get into the water, it makes me feel 20 years younger."

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