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The Unstoppables

Another record is never far away

March 26, 2007|ROY WALLACK | Special to The Times

IT started in the 1920s, in a little brook under a bridge in Providence, R.I. That's where a young Rita Gadbois, with a new pair of inflatable water wings from her mother, learned how to swim, going back and forth. Her dad, a gemstone-setter, would challenge her to swim more and more laps -- and then go down and beat her.

"My dad wouldn't let me beat him in Tiddlywinks," she says.

But she loved that. It helped her develop a passion for athletics and competition that led her to marriage, made her a world champion, and, if all goes as planned, could whisk her past the century mark to a record she hopes will never be broken.

Now Rita Simonton, she wouldn't have predicted any of this back in 1935, when she finished her high school swim team career with little distinction ("I wasn't any good," she says). But she impressed the local Amateur Athletic Union team enough to warrant an invitation, and proved her AAU coaches right by winning the Rhode Island state low-board diving championships.

When poverty wrecked her college plans ("no one was buying jewelry in the Depression," she says), she became a bookkeeper, filling her spare time with hikes on the Appalachian Trail, bike trips with American Youth Hostels, and nighttime swim practices.

In 1940, after a planned vacation to see the Helsinki Olympics was canceled by the Soviet Union's invasion of Finland, she switched to a four-week bike trip in Mexico. There, she met her future husband, UC Berkeley medical student Jack Simonton. They married in 1944. The rapid arrival of two children and the lack of a car shelved her athletic pursuits for nearly two decades.

Living in San Pedro in 1962, the radiologist's wife read an article in the Los Angeles Times about an upcoming Masters swim meet near the Coliseum. "I've always been competitive, and I just had to do this," she said. But several weeks of determined practice at a nearby hotel pool wasn't enough.

"I got beat," she said. "But that event rekindled my fire. I was 53. I set a goal of victory at the Senior Olympics."

That would take a while. Despite placing third in the breaststroke in a local Santa Monica meet within a year, Simonton wasn't close to national caliber. But relentless improvement and age-group attrition helped her cause. She also bought her first car, a yellow Pontiac LeMans with a black vinyl top, which allowed her to travel to meets.

"By 65 or 70, there aren't too many competitors, and I was getting, as I like to say, 'less slower.' I was ready to start winning."

And she did, taking her first national title at 65. Today, she holds the short-course (25-meter pool) freestyle world records in the 85-to-89 age group in the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 meters and the 100-meter individual medley, with more in similar long course (50-meter pool) events. All were set in 2003, when the then-84-year-old was named "Swimmer of the Year" by Swim Magazine and made the cover of Masters Swim in July 2004, as she was winning five gold medals in Italy at the 2004 World Championships.

Now a Masters Hall of Famer, Simonton combines a rigorous training schedule (swimming 1 1/4 miles a day four times a week with two gym sessions of Pilates and weights) with a "kinda fussy" diet -- eight servings of fruit and vegetables a day, mainly bananas, blueberries, raspberries, tomatoes and spinach. She eats no white bread or fried food, only meat that's broiled. She takes 81 milligrams of aspirin a day to help prevent clogging of the arteries. "I don't get enough sleep. I'm trying to get eight hours, but I read too much," she says.

Simonton is so flexible that she can bend over and put her palms flat on the ground, and so healthy that she hasn't had a cold in three years. But life's not perfect. "I have arthritis all over -- especially in hands, knees and shoulders." The arthritis has stooped her back somewhat and long ago forced her to give up running and skiing, which she'd begun at age 45 with Jack and found "exhilarating." But since her doctors tell her that a non-impact exercise like swimming may help relieve the problem, she trains harder than ever.

A widow since 1991, Simonton's mantra is "Keep busy, keep learning." She loves bird-watching -- locally at the Bolsa Chica wetlands and as far afield as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the Canadian Atlantic. She belongs to a once-a-month French club ("I'm losing my tenses") and always takes a history or literature class at Golden West College near her Huntington Harbor home. Besides keeping her mind active, that lets her use the school's pool for free.

Her advice on aging boils down to "Don't dread it, revel in it."

"Oh, I look forward to getting older -- especially 100," she says. "After all, look at the times." She points to the record book, which shows that a younger woman from Santa Clara is erasing all her records in the lower age groups.

So Simonton has no choice but to keep setting new ones. She especially has her eye on the 50-meter freestyle for the 100-plus age group, set by an Australian woman with a time of 5:10.84.

"Five minutes to go one length of the pool?" Simonton says. "I could do that with one hand! But I've got to get through my 90s first."

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