The last rodeo: Reflections from marathon swimmer Barbara Held

The last rodeo: Reflections from marathon swimmer Barbara Held


Barbara Held and I crossed paths three times in 2011: at the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, where she was the first woman to finish; at the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim; and then again during my Catalina Channel swim, for which she was a CCSF observer. She did her own Catalina swim in 2010 (in the blazing fast time of 9:36), and set a new age record in the process.

Barbara Held

Barbara’s marathon swimming feats are even more impressive in light of how she completed them all after the age of 55. Now 58, she will tackle the English Channel in August – a swim she says will be her last before retiring from marathon swimming.

It’s an exhausting, time-consuming, and expensive sport – in which “careers” don’t often last more than a few years. So Barbara and I stand in curious symmetry: While I’m now looking back on my first year of marathon swimming, she is looking upon (perhaps) her last. 

With Barbara’s permission, I’m re-posting a “Note” she recently wrote on Facebook, reflecting on her years as a marathon swimmer. In many ways, it’s a perfect counterpoint to my own year in review. The following is what Barbara self-deprecatingly describes as “the closest thing to a ‘blog’ you will ever see me do.”


Reflections from today’s swim

Garmin swim watch

Today was a glorious day in the ocean. My planned 2 mile swim turned into 5.40 miles. Usually when I swim I zone out and think about absolutely nothing but today was different. Perhaps it was because I swam alone today or perhaps my mind believes this is may be my last winter of hard training before I retire from open water marathon swims. No, I am not saying I will never swim again but budget dictates that I can no longer afford the expense of swimming channels and I really am not looking forward to more cold winters of swimming. I see relays and shorter, warmer swims for me in my 60’s.

I was reflecting on my last 2 years and how fortunate I am to have discovered marathon swimming. I have met wonderful swimmers across the globe who share the same passion and many I now call friends.

At 56 I swam from Robben Island to Blouberg in Cape Town in 52-56F water. Not a long swim but a spectacular swim and a challenge due to currents and temperature. Next on the agenda was the 21 miles across the Catalina Channel.
Then on to Hawaii to swim the Maui Channel. To end that year I also had some fun swims in Fiji. I was also the President of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club which was certainly an interesting adventure. Now I help the club by maintaing the bulletin board and helping to administer it’s Facebook page.

At 57 I swam the 24 mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, the 28.5 mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, and the Strait of Gibraltar. All very different and each with their own special charms. Then it was time for some fun! A relay across the English Channel with 2 other swimmers from La Jolla Cove Swim Club and 3 from Ireland. To end the year I joined a side-by-side tandem relay swim around Catalina Island (about 48 miles).

At 58 I am training for the English Channel which I am scheduled to swim in late August. Hopefully there will be good conditions and it will be a successful swim.

I also reflected on how fortunate I have been throughout my life. I often ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ and am guided by ‘gut instinct’ and not planning and preparation. As a 9 year old I found myself on a swim team because the YMCA had nothing left to offer me as I had passed every swim class in one summer and was too young for junior life guards. I had a great time during those days despite endless hours of going back and forth over a black line, often 10,000+ yards/meters a day. I never really finished my ‘childhood’ swimming despite my ranking in the top 25 in the USA and the potential to swim the 1972 Olympic trials. When I reached high school I decided I wanted to try other things and not have swimming dictate my life. Perhaps the death of my Father figures into this decision too. Never regretted that decision as I felt it lead me to the rest of my life.

At 27 I began swimming seriously again with what is known today as Southern California Aquatic Masters. During the 3 years of swimming I set many world masters records in Butterfly and distance Freestyle. I also began entering many ocean swimming competitions. In the Waikiki Roughwater Swim I finished 9th out of 801 swimmers and was the 1st woman out of the water. 3 of the men who finished before me were Olympians. I was and still am very proud of that swim.

I spent 5 years with ‘Ma Bell’ climbing telephone poles, promoting and overseeing installation and repair crews before I found myself assigned to ‘Headquarters Staff’ where I found myself sitting at a desk. I actually had a great assignment as a ‘space planner’ and was taught to draw building plans for the construction crews. I learned how to work in ink on velum which were then turned into the blue prints for the construction. Soon ‘Ma Bell’ was to be broken apart into ‘mini bells’ and ATT. I missed being outside and thought what else can I do? The aha moment struck and I picked up the phone and called the City of Santa Monica and asked about becoming a Firefighter. The best and most important phone call of my life!

As a Firefighter I still continued with swimming but at a less intense level as getting thru probation was the priority. I continued swimming with SCAQ and often coached workouts. After about 8 months as a Firefighter I heard about the first World Police and Fire Games. I jumped at the chance to participate in these Games since I love to compete and I thought I might actually meet another woman Firefighter. The WPFG were held every odd year and I competed in them for 25 years in all sorts of events: Swimming and Open Water Swimming (obviously), Toughest Competitor Alive, Indoor Rowing, Outdoor Rowing, Weight Lifting, Dragon Boat Racing and Triathlon. The first WPFG had 5,000+ competitors and the most recent held in 2011 had 16,000+ competitors. The WPFG offers around 60 sporting events. I also found an opportunity and took it to become a part of the Governing Body of these Games which I did for 10 years while still competing. Over the years I oversaw the Toughest Competitor Alive, Field Soccer, Indoor Soccer, Racquetball, Open Water Swimming and Badminton. I was also responsible to make sure the host city provided proper medical facilities and treatment for all of the competitors and was a member of the bracketing committee which had to set up all of the tournament play for the Games. Thru these Games I have made life long friends.

I am less than 2 years from turning 60. I still have many goals I would like to achieve. As soon as the real estate market makes a comeback (yes, I can be patient) I will sell and take the mortgage to use as rental money and start traveling and living for a month or two in other parts of the world. Perhaps I will also full fill a childhood fantasy of finally working at Disneyland.

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