Mel Smith tells people he plans to quit swimming when it ceases to be fun.
But judging by his involvement at the Washington State Senior Games that shouldn’t occur anytime soon.
For the last five years, Smith has pulled double duty at the largest Olympic-style multi-sport event in Washington – participating both as a swimmer and as the swimming event’s commissioner.
At the most recent Senior Games, when he wasn’t zipping around directing traffic and making sure everything was running smoothly – it always does under Smith’s watch – he was in the place he feels most comfortable – the pool.
His event count was lower this year than it has been in the past – he was only entered into the 200 freestyle – but he will tell you, any time you can go for a dip, it’s better than most other days.
“My knees are sort of living on borrowed time. So, I started on the side of the pool,” said the 73-year-old Smith, who also coaches the boys and girls swim teams at Olympia High School. “I actually almost negative split. I was out in 1:38 and back, final time was 3:17. I very possibly had a negative split. So, that was fun. I was happy with it. I’d like to swim more events, but I am still recovering from shoulder surgery. I would have done alright in the 500. Hopefully, I am back at full strength next year.”
An injured shoulder prevented him from competing three years ago. He says it has slowed him down a touch, but you wouldn’t know it after hearing what he has planned for the remainder of the summer.
He will head to Hood River Community College to compete in the long course at the 2016 U.S. Masters Swimming Summer National Championships August 17-21.
Smith has been entered into the 400 and 800 freestyle.
“The longer the better,” Smith says about his preferred type of event. “I’ve been to the long course nationals back in my youth when I was 50 or 60, but this is the first time in probably 10 years or something since I last competed there. I don’t have very high expectations, just looking forward to having a good time.”
While nationals will be solely for Smith, the next major activity on his summer to-do list is about others. He will participate in the annual Swim Across America – an open water swim in Lake Washington that serves as a fundraiser for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which benefits Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine, and Seattle Children’s Hospital.
The event is on September 10. Smith will swim two miles.
“Last year I was one of the older swimmers. I’ve swam in seven out of the eight years they’ve had it,” Smith said. “I get people to volunteer and sponsor me. I’ve raised on average about $3,000 every year I’ve been in. The race raises about $750,000 to a million. I just try to help out anyway I can.”
That’s been Smith’s approach since arriving in Thurston County in 2004.
He was initially simply visiting Olympia with his wife, Amy, from Illinois – where he coached high school swimming for nearly two decades. The plan was to spend some time with their new grandson. However, it turned into a permanent stay.
“I swam at the Senior Games here in 2004 and have been helping out ever since,” Smith, who swam collegiately at Albion College in Michigan where he was captain and team MVP on the 1964 swim team that captured the MIAA Championship. “We actually came out here to just see what the Northwest was like and enjoyed it so much we moved here.”
Prior to Swim Across America, Smith will begin his ninth season at the helm of the Olympia High School swimming program.
“I’m 73 and I figure I’ll keep going as long as I am still having fun and not injuring myself. My heart rate is still below 60, some days below 50 and that’s good. There’s some mornings I just as soon not be in the pool, but once I get in and loosen up, I feel pretty good,” Smith said. “People ask me all the time why I keep swimming and I tell them swimming is not a very forgiving sport. I just read an article about what it’s like when you’ve been out of the water too long and what it takes to get back into it. I figure I will just stay in water so I don’t have to worry about that.”