Elizabeth Budd was born to swim, but history and sexism prevented her for years from achieving her dreams. Now at age 55, she’s a swimming champion, and says life is only getting better.
Budd, who teaches swimming classes at Oregon State University through Faculty and Staff Fitness and PAC, began swimming when she was 9-years-old. She swam on her YMCA swim team, but when she became a freshman in high school, she was informed that girls weren’t able to swim, because of their periods.
“Everyone was buying into this myth,” she said. Her mother didn’t agree with the common knowledge of the 1960s, but since Budd’s high school swim coach wouldn’t let her swim with the boys, she gave up swimming.
As a sophomore at Western Washington University, Budd benefited from the passage of Title IX, which allowed her and other female swimmers to swim with the men’s team. Unfortunately, after a year the team was eliminated due to budget cuts, and yet again, Budd’s swimming dream was cut short.
About five years ago, Budd’s daughter, Mary Beth, decided her mom had given up swimming for far too long, and suggested that she get back into the sport. Budd agreed, but at first, the task was daunting.
“People in Corvallis swim really well,” she said, and when she got in the pool and realized she couldn’t do a 200-meter swim, it frustrated her.
But she took classes at OSU, and began paying close attention to technique, and to building up her strength. Soon she was teaching classes, in part because it helped pay for her hobby, and because it increased her own skills.
“I am very interested in technique,” she said. “At age 55, I cannot get better on muscle alone.”
Budd began training hard, and soon had a very serious goal in mind, to become an All American Masters Swimmer champion. Last July, she competed in a 25 kilometer United States Masters Swimming open water race, and after eight-and-a-half hours of continuous swimming in a lake in Indiana, she became a national champion, and the oldest woman to complete the race.
Getting prepared to swim for that long in a cold lake took months of preparation. Budd’s daughter, Mary Beth, took the summer off from work and attending graduate school so she could train with her mom. Mary Beth rode in a kayak alongside her mom as they trained in Fern Ridge reservoir every day, making sure she kept hydrated and energized, and that she didn’t succumb to hyperthermia, a serious risk given the length of time she was in the water.
“Three hours is fine, but eight-and-a-half hours is a different question,” she said. At a certain point during the swim, she would get tactile hallucinations, as if snakes and spiders were crawling across her. She learned to prevent that feeling by wearing a wetsuit that kept the water off her arms, and covered her face in a Vaseline-like protectant that dulled it to sensation.
Mary Beth also helped keep her mom sane during the long swim. She would yell song titles down to her mom and then they’d sing together.
“She was so kind to me,” Budd said.
Her husband Tim, a professor of computer science at OSU, was also in a boat supporting her during the race, and took pictures as well. It became a family affair.
Budd was competing against one other woman swimmer in her age bracket, but the other swimmer wasn’t able to finish the race. Budd hung on, and emerged at the end of the day triumphant, and with a national championship to add to her growing list of swimming awards.
In late January, Budd celebrated her 55th birthday with an hour-long swim with friends at Osborn. The party doubled as a fundraiser for her friend Cheryl Hatch’s non-profit organization, Isis Initiative Inc. She’s excited to be 55, because there are so many possibilities ahead of her, she said, and she’s happy to face the new year with a national championship in her pocket.
“To me it was a thrill.”
~ Theresa Hogue