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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Gran, 71, leaves world in her wake

Staff writer

This story is part of a package on "Growing old healthily." The introduction is here

Shoko Yonezawa is surprisingly matter-of-fact about being a multiple world champion.

News photo
Shoko Yonezawa competing in the Women's Swim Festival 2005 in Yokohama last October, where she set three new world records in breaststroke and backstroke. PHOTO COURTESY OF JAPAN MASTERS SWIMMING ASSOCIATION

The 71-year-old housewife and grandmother from Yokohama laughs merrily as she admits that the best part of her twice-weekly visits to her local swimming pool are actually the many breaks that she enjoys taking from swimming to soak in a Jacuzzi and chat with friends she's made there.

But after this diminutive mother of two grown-up sons broke 30 world records in her Masters age category last year -- of which 11 were still standing by the end of the year -- she was awarded the title of "The Planet's Top Female Swimmer" by the prestigious, Arizona-based Swimming World Magazine.

Such fame -- though still without a fortune -- has been a long time coming for Yonezawa, who grew up before World War II as the second of six children in Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu.

Her parents, both of whom were elementary school teachers, were too busy to take care of their children, she says, so -- left to make their own fun -- they spent a lot of their time together playing in a nearby river, especially swimming back and forth across it against the current.

"There was nothing much else to do back in those days," Yonezawa says. "I was out in the river all day long."

After that, apart from two years in high school when she was in the swimming club and competed in a national competition, swimming never figured highly in Yonezawa's life.

That was until she reached her late 40s, when she decided to take up swimming again as she became interested in the Masters competition. Even now, though, despite her success, she says she still only regards swimming as a hobby and a good way to meet new friends.

On her visits to the pool, Yonezawa usually only swims about 1 km in a leisurely 90 minutes or so -- to ensure she won't feel tired from the exercise, she says.

Relaxed approach

And just as she takes a relaxed approach to her workout, neither does she worry much about what she eats. In fact, her only staple is a daily traditional breakfast of natto (fermented soybeans) and miso soup. Even that, she says, is only because her husband -- who takes no interest in her sport, but doesn't object -- asks for it.

Altogether, it seems that the biggest contributor to Yonezawa's health and seemingly bottomless well of energy is the network of friends she has built up through swimming. Normally, she says, she hangs out at the club with 15 or 16 people aged from their 30s to 90s, and often goes out with them after for lunch or dinner.

With a twinkle in her eye, though, Yonezawa admits that these friends can also play a pivotal role in her "intelligence-gathering" as competitions approach. Because of them, through word of mouth she can often keep close tabs on her rivals at other clubs across the nation. Mind games, it seems, are a big part of the competition preparations.

"Everyone is always complaining about this leg pain or that backache," she chuckles, noting that people often playfully exaggerate their symptoms to make others feel they don't have to try so hard. "One time, I heard a very competitive swimmer [at another sports club] saying she wouldn't do well because she had diabetes and was undergoing some insulin treatment. But at the competition, she zipped along like nothing had happened! So nobody takes those comments at face value."

News photo
Shoko Yonezawa wins again at the Women's Swim Festival 2005 in Yokohama. PHOTO COURTESY OF JMSA

In fact, the whole Masters scene appears to be an enjoyably "mature" blend of enjoyment and endeavor. Though Yonezawa herself has competed abroad in Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and the United States, she says that half of all participants are often Japanese who just enter one race and then go off shopping and sightseeing.

So what further goals has Yonezawa in view right now?

This year, she says, she is not expecting a big harvest of gold medals. That's because last year she managed to break so many records because she turned 70, which qualified her to compete in the 70- to 74-year-old age category. This year, she has entered 26 races and renewed just six Japan records.

Of course she will now try to hang in there until she turns 75, when she qualifies for the 75- to 79-year-old competitions -- when another golden harvest of medals may be hers.

"Nobody who is into Masters swimming hides their age," she says, "because there are more opportunities as you grow older."

So what is her ultimate secret for a healthy, active life?

"I don't think much," she says, laughing cheerfully yet again. "I always tell my friends, my brain is so empty that, if you shake it, it will rattle!"

But as she herself suggested, it might be rash to take her words at face value . . .

For other stories in our "Growing old healthily" package, please click the following links:

No mountain too high for oldest man ever to scale Everest By Eric Prideaux
New horizons beckon legendary sailor By Eric L. Due

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