Liz Hogan once quit swimming because it had consumed her life. A former prodigy from Northern California who first competed for a spot on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team at 15, Hogan retired before she turned 20. She had just finished her freshman year at UCLA after narrowly missing a spot on the 1976 Olympic team as well.
The sudden death of her older brother Ted from a previously undetected heart condition known as cardiomyopathy and her own bout with diverticulitis contributed to Hogan's losing her zeal for a sport she had competed in since age 6. But the years of spending hours underwater also had taken their toll emotionally and physically.
"I just wanted to do something different," she said recently. "It had been my whole life."
It took more than 30 years and rehabilitation from injuries she suffered in a near-fatal car accident in 2004 in Florida to bring Hogan, a physical scientist for the Navy, back to swimming. Briefly ranked first in the United States and second in the world in two events as a teenager, Hogan is again considered among the most dominant swimmers in her age group.
Now 56, Hogan is among a half-dozen members of the Anne Arundel Amphibians and more than 100 Marylanders competing in Cleveland this week in the National Senior Games. She won 12 gold medals in 18events in her first three National Senior Games and has set five records in the biennial competition since turning 50 — the minimum age for competition. She added to her medal haul by winning the 100-meter butterfly Saturday and finished fourth in the 200 individual medley.
"I'm just so happy that I can do it," Hogan said. "I love it right now because I'm doing exactly what I need in my life. I need a specific goal, but I don't get upset not going as fast as I used to. The fact that I'm faster at [nearly] 57 than I was at 49 is awesome to me. My goal is to see how good I can get."
Hogan — whose injuries in the Florida crash included breaking her hip, pelvis, femur and both wrists and dislocating her left ankle — credits the Annapolis swim club and its longtime coach, Rand Vaillancourt, for helping her renew her love for the sport. Hogan didn't tell Vaillancourt about her previous swimming career when she first showed up several months after the accident.
"I came in on a cane that time — he was a little bit worried," Hogan said, recalling their initial meeting. "What's great about his team is he'll take all levels of swimmers as long as you can swim two lengths [of the pool], and then he'll work with you to make you a better swimmer. I got in the water and he said, 'You know how to swim, don't you?'"
Hogan said she waited a few weeks to tell him about her experience because of the mixed feelings she still had about swimming.
"I just wanted to work myself into it and see if I wanted to do it again," she said. "Once I got in with a team again — and a team with all different types of athletes who support one another and work hard together — it was great.
"I love helping people with their strokes. I love the teaching part. And I love being pushed — that's what I needed. I couldn't do it just for myself. I needed to do it for a team. It really brought the drive back."
Vaillancourt, who has coached at the Arundel Olympic Swim Center for 17 years, quickly moved Hogan to what she called "the fast lane."
"She was pretty special from the beginning," Vaillancourt said. "She's a great motivator. She takes the time to help others, which I encourage. She has a unique point of view because she's been to the top of the mountain."
Keith Lucas, Hogan's husband, said she hid her swimming history from him initially, too. They met playing volleyball more than 25 years ago when they were both working in Delaware.
"She has a couple of cases of medals that I never saw because she had them in the attic of her house," Lucas said. "She has things like the pewter vase she got in Moscow for winning her events there. I knew she was a good swimmer. But I never saw her swim until after the accident. I tried to encourage her a few times, but she really had no interest before [the accident]."
Lucas, who works as an engineer for the Navy, said swimming helped speed his wife's rehabilitation and allowed her to return to an active life professionally and personally.
"I think it focused her on recovery," Lucas said. "She enjoyed the rehab because she got to work with other people and help them, too. When I put her in the pool, she knew she had to do it competitively. She couldn't just wallow in the water. From years of training, she understands what she needs to do to get better. And she helps the others because they see her work so hard."
Older sister Sue de Boer said that when Hogan called from her first National Senior Games, she was more excited than she had been in years.
"She said, 'I had so much fun, I met so-and-so,' and I asked, 'How'd you do?' and she said, 'I felt good, I had so much fun,'" de Boer said. "I had to go online to see that she had taken the gold and broken the record. I called her back and said, 'You won!' and she said, 'I had so much fun, I met so many people.' I said, 'But you won!' and she said, 'It's not about that.' That's the part that's very different."
A close call
Lucas thought he had lost his wife in the accident on Valentine's Day 2004. They were driving together from a lab in Key West, Fla., heading to Washington, D.C., to deliver equipment that couldn't be shipped. Lucas, who was driving, said they were on a busy highway outside Orlando when another car flew over the median and came to a stop right in front of their car, which plowed into it.
While he suffered only a few cuts and bruises, Lucas recalled being shocked to look over at his wife, who had been working on a computer in the front passenger seat. She wasn't moving or breathing. A nurse who had also been driving on Interstate 4 helped revive her.
The roof of the car had to be cut off for Hogan to be carefully extricated and airlifted to a hospital in Orlando. She eventually was taken by medical plane to George Washington University Hospital for further surgery.
During her rehabilitation, Hogan's six siblings took turns coming to help out and encourage her through the arduous process. De Boer said Hogan's old competitive instincts took over.
"After the accident, when she's coming home from the hospital, I'm talking to her and she gets really frustrated with the physical therapist and saying, 'It's not enough,'" deBoer said. "She has stairs in her house and she has casts on her arms and her legs and she says, 'I'm going to slide down the stairs.' But then she started saying, 'I've got to get back in the pool.'"
After spending six weeks in rehab and an additional three months in a wheelchair, Hogan was eventually cleared to go back to work. Though she needed help getting around, Lucas took her to a swimming pool near FedEx Field — they live in Upper Marlboro — where Hogan quickly progressed to swimming laps.
"I started to water walk. I said, 'This is crazy, I'm a swimmer.' I started to swim some, and it was great," she said.
Two days later, a colleague told Hogan about Vaillancourt's swim team.
She had briefly tried swimming when she lived in Lewes, Del., years before, but "the one thing I learned is that I couldn't just swim lengths. I'd get in and it was just boring to me."
A different feeling
As she prepared for the competition in Cleveland — not an easy task, considering the 12-hour days she spends working at the many labs she travels to — Hogan didn't view the National Senior Games as a way to fill a void left by what she failed to accomplish as a teenager.
"They're completely separate, and the way I feel about them is completely different," she said. "I got so much from swimming when I was young and the competition and the people I met and the experiences. I got to travel all over. Even though I didn't make the Olympics, it didn't stop me in my life. All the sports I did when I was young have given me the strength to be a very strong woman in my 50s, and I'm very proud of that."
If anything, she takes more pride in what she has done with her professional life. After graduating with a degree in psychology from UCLA, Hogan went back to school in Delaware to study marine science. That eventually led to her training with the Navy and becoming an expert in developing anti-corrosion systems for vessels. She and her team were honored at the Pentagon this year.
Hogan doesn't think swimming will consume her this time, even after she retires.
"I really enjoy right now. I really enjoy Masters swimmers," she said. "There are some who are like triathletes. I'm not at that crazy level. I want to get better. I want to work on my stroke techniques, try to get stronger and faster, but it's not my whole life."