At 79, competitive swimmer Shirley Story shows no signs of stopping

Mar. 23, 2013 @ 02:51 PM

Shirley Story was swimming at the Lenoir Aquatic Center when a lifeguard asked the question that changed her life.

The Unifour Senior Games are coming up, the lifeguard said. Why don’t you compete? 

Story had worked as a lifeguard as a teenager. She has always been a swimmer. But she had never competed. And she was 65 years old.

But she was ready to dive in.

“I said, ‘I’ve never raced in my life. I don’t know anything about it,’” she said. “But they talked me into it. I signed up for the longest one, because I don’t swim real fast. I figured maybe I could outlast somebody.”

Now Story -- who also paints, hikes and volunteers at her church’s food bank -- is a 79-year-old competitive swimmer.

It all happened quickly. That year, Story qualified for state, then nationals and suddenly, competitive swimming had wedged itself into her life. She has now traveled all over the country -- Orlando, Pittsburgh, St. Louis -- to compete in the National Senior Games.

Then, one year, she was ready to go to nationals in California. The plane tickets were purchased. Her sisters were coming along.

But then Story took a tumble on a hiking trip and tore her rotator cuff. She knew her plans to compete at nationals had just taken a hit.

But she decided to take a chance. She told her doctor she knew she couldn’t compete in her freestyle events, but she could still do the backstroke -- “sort of,” she said.

He cleared her to try. She promised him she’d get in there and doggie-paddle if she had to. All she had to do was finish the race.

But her doctor had an imagination almost as big as hers.

“He said, ‘Don’t get in there and doggie-paddle,’” Story said. “‘You get in there and you swim to win. We’ll fix it when you get back.’”

Events in the National Senior Games give ribbons down to eighth place. Story swam in two events and won seventh in both.

“I guess I’m competitive,” she said. “You know, I get in there and you’re swimming with other people and you do the very best you can. I would’ve been very happy with an eighth-place ribbon, but you know, I moved it up to the seventh.”

Story credits competitive swimming with keeping her mind and body young even as the candles crowd onto her birthday cake.

“I think if you sit down, when you get older, you’re not gonna get back up,” Story said. “You just have to keep busy.”

Story won’t be swimming at nationals this year -- but not because she’s slowing down. The longtime oil-painter has an art show opening the same week.

The show opens the day before her 80th birthday.