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Xavier Magazine | March 24, 2017

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The Swim of Things: Lapping Up the Wins

By France Griggs Sloat

When Frank Nieman turned 64, all he wanted was a good workout. Just a few laps in the pool. Back in his Xavier days, Nieman swam for a Coca-Cola AAU team and was quite competitive, even winning the 1951 National Junior Championship in the 200-yard breaststroke. So when feeling a bit weighed down with age a few years ago, he decided getting back in shape sounded like a good idea.

Not so fast. After a career as dean and president of the School of Applied Theology in San Francisco and raising eight children, Nieman, who stands a stately 6-foot-3, found he did not have the same energy in retirement as he had in his youth. Hitting the pool near his home in Pleasant Hill, just east of San Francisco, Nieman was managing a respectable 800 yards a day, two days a week, but it wasn’t doing the trick. The scales just weren’t plummeting.

Then he noticed a group of older men and women working out at the pool, and in 1996, Nieman joined their U.S. Masters Swimming club. “I went from a rather leisurely swimming of 700 or 800 yards a couple of times a week to around 3,000 yards a day five or six days a week,” Nieman says. “The effect was dramatic. I went from 245 pounds to a respectable 215 pounds, though I began nodding off into my luncheon soup. But slowly, my energy level rose and my swimming speed improved.”

The competitor still lurking inside, Nieman entered competition with his club, which awarded him Rookie of the Year honors. After only two months of training, he placed third in the 50-meter breaststroke at a Pacific Masters meet. The next year at the National Championships in Indianapolis, he took second in the 200-meter breaststroke.

In the ensuing 14 years, Nieman’s had a few setbacks, including a knee replacement. But at 78, he’s still swimming. It’s a labor of love, because he does not enjoy practice at all. “The boredom I feel trying to find entertainment in the cracks of the bottom of the pool is offset by my meeting a group of interesting men and women my age doing the same thing.”

And it gets harder every year, especially when he runs up against former Olympians who will “clean your clock,” he says. But he and his new-found friends try to keep a sense of humor as they live well into their golden years. “We laugh about our dull sport, but we also note our trim appearance and generally excellent health.”

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