By Gail Wood
Peg Cloutier was desperate. After smoking for over 30 years, she wanted to quit.
She started swimming, determined the physical conditioning would help. Nineteen years later, she’s still swimming.
Swimming necessitated the need to have clear lungs. Swimming also helped her do something she never expected. Cloutier, who is now 80 and lives at Panorama in Lacey, has competed at the Senior Games and the U.S. Masters.
A couple of years ago at Stanford University, Cloutier placed third in the 500-yard freestyle at a U.S. Masters event, surprising even herself.
“For me, that was the best,” Cloutier said. “I was in competition with some women who had been swimming for a lot longer.”
It was a long journey from smoker to national qualifier, especially since Cloutier could barely swim one length of the pool when she started in 1996. “I could swim to the end of the pool and I wanted to drown,” Cloutier said with a laugh.
She couldn’t swim 15 laps nonstop. She could barely do one.
“It was so difficult,” Cloutier said. “I was so out of breath and tired. And I really, really give Mel credit for the progress that I made.”
At 61 years young, an age where people are slowing down, not speeding up, Cloutier got into the swimming pool, determined to get into good shape. But before she’d go fast, Cloutier went slow – really slow. She swam in the slow lane during workouts with Smith’s masters class.
“We have four lanes we train in,” Smith said. “She was over in the slower lane, but she always listened and paid attention.”
Cloutier was venturesome. She learned how to do flip turns and how to finish her freestyle stroke better. And she even learned how to do competitive starts off the blocks.
“By the time she was competing she was doing really well,” Smith said.
Cloutier was a work in progress and Smith was the encourager she needed.
“He’s one of the best,” Cloutier said. “He had me doing things I never thought I’d do in a million years.”
Cloutier retired from nursing 19 years ago at age 61. That’s at a time when age can become an excuse – a hiding place from having to do things and be active. But Cloutier retired from her job, not from life. She didn’t want to become a couch potato, watching television reruns and munching on potato chips to pass a day. She believed the old adage – use it or lose it.
“You have to have the want to,” Cloutier said.
You have to have the desire to get up and go.
“No one can put that in you,” she said. “It’s your choice. But why would you stop moving. Here at Panorama they offer so much. They offer all kinds of classes for people who have limited mobility. We even have things that blind people can do. So there’s no excuse. If someone doesn’t want to, there’s nothing you can do.”
Swimming isn’t the only solution. Exercise is exercise no matter what the mode.
“You can (exercise) in a variety of ways,” Cloutier said. “You can run. You can bicycle. You can swim. You can do whatever.”
Cloutier, who played basketball and softball while serving in the Air Force back in the 1950s, admits she’s got a “competitive edge.” That’s what drives her. It’s her go-power.
“That edge is still there,” Cloutier said. “I think for a lot of people who have a competitive edge there’s an absolute need to move.”
Sitting and doing nothing isn’t an option for people with that personality trait. And there’s the satisfaction of winning – of doing better than someone else. Cloutier has experienced that. She remembers passing someone while working out in the pool.
“I’d pass someone I would look over underwater and smile at them,” she said.
And the smile wasn’t being a good sport.
“That’s being a smart ass,” Cloutier said with a chuckle.
Unfortunately, Cloutier’s commitment to swimming has been derailed. A year ago, she started having pain in her shoulder and that’s preventing her from working out, swimming lap after lap in preparation for another masters swim meet. She said two things contributed to her shoulder injury.
“It’s called aging and wear and tear,” she said with a chuckle.
Cloutier still plans on returning to the pool to swim. But of course, she’s not sitting on the couch, with the TV clicker in hand. She’s riding her bike, walking and enjoying life.
“She’s not much for being one who sits on the couch,” Smith said.
Instead, Peg Cloutier is an inspiration to get up and do.