A recent NPR story featured Graham Johnston, an 82-year-old master’s swimmer who just competed in The National Senior Games. Johnston is an excellent freestyler and has set many records over the years.
The article could just have easily highlighted Clarke “Mitch” Mitchell (age 81) who swam with Johnston many years ago when they both competed for the University of Oklahoma.
I have known Mitch for the past 15 years. He has seen me cycle in and out of the pool, sometimes competing in master’s events, sometimes not. Sometimes doing hard work outs. Other times just slopping along.
But not Mitch. He has shown consistency, persistence, the ability to swim through injuries and arthritis, and an indefatigable spirit and love of swimming. And in the Pan-Am Games in June, Mitch beat Johnston to win the 50-meter free in the 80-84 age group. Mitch also set a U.S. record in the 100-meter backstroke (1:31.1) and a world record in the 50-meter butterfly (38.75).
I asked Mitch to tell me about his swimming — his training, his mental approach, his motivation. I’ve summarized some of his answers below. It’s easy to see why he is still so enthusiastic about swimming, and why he continues to break records.
Bob ~ What drives you to continue to train and compete?
Mitch ~ Preparing for retirement, I knew I had to have something I liked to do to take up some of my free time. It needed to be something I could do as I aged and something I could do pretty well to keep me happy. I like the fellowship, I do well, I have a good place to practice and it helps keep me going. It helps me handle the Rheumatoid Arthritis, too.
B ~ What would you say your strengths are from a psychological/mental standpoint?
M ~Besides having had some really good coaching through the years, I have the ability to focus. It’s difficult for me to focus on too many things at the same time, so I rely on reflex to handle most of it and focus on a particular item or two in a race or meet. I don’t get uptight before a race or meet, just reconcile myself to do all I can and let it happen. I am a goal setter and vary the goals from season to season to keep it feeling new.
B ~ You are so positive and encouraging. Is that something that you’ve always had in you? Or, have you tried to cultivate a positive attitude for sports and life?
M ~ Being positive is something I have tried to learn. I was a cheerleader in high school and college, as well as being a swimmer, so some of it comes naturally. But it’s a philosophy of life I’ve adopted more in later years. When you see so many folks with much greater problems than I have had, it helps keep the perspective. Also, I try to plan for contingencies, so I’m ready for complications.
B ~ Anything you do to prepare psychologically for a meet?
M ~ Yes, I visualize the pool, the race I am focusing on, and the things I am working on for that particular race. I don’t predict times or place… just things like pace, turnover, breathing patterns, my kick, or whatever. Reflexes and training take care of the other things. Also, in workouts, I always swim to the wall and do the strokes and turns legally. Remember, “practice doesn’t make perfect… practice makes consistent!”
B ~ Thanks, Mitch. Keep on swimming! (And I’ll try to keep up.)