HUMANA Hero: Jane Katz, 73 New York City, New York
Like Father, Like Daughter
Dr. Jane Katz has made a lot of waves in her field. She earned her doctorate degree in gerontology and geriatrics from Columbia University and is nationally recognized as an educator, aquatics innovator and author of 14 books on swimming, fitness, and water exercise. She has taught water fitness to thousands at the City University of New York since 1964, and at John Jay College since 1989, where her students include New York City policemen and firefighters.
Jane’s athletic achievements began with the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo as a member of the synchronized swimming performance team. Her career as a masters competitive, long-distance, synchronized and fin swimmer has earned All-American and World Masters championships. Her name appears in eight places in National Senior Games Top Ten Performance Photo: Zachary A.M. Kelly
swim records, and she garnered five gold and one silver medal at the 2015 National Senior Games Presented by Humana.
In 2014, Jane received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. And this fall, she will be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
As impressive as her resume is, the reason why she has devoted her career to aquatics is equally noteworthy. “When my dad was a teenager he nearly drowned. He was saved by a stranger who happened to be an elite Canadian swimmer,” Jane explains. “He taught my dad how to swim, and he thought it was a gift of life.”
Leon Katz was an engineer by profession, but he also became an elite swimmer through high school and college and made swimming a lifetime avocation. He brought his entire family into the pool and then taught and coached swimming for the next 50 years on New York’s Lower East Side, first at the YMCA and then with a neighborhood association.
“Coach Katz taught everybody to swim. Seven decades later, people still tell me their parents were taught by my dad,” she says. “He passed his love for swimming on to our whole family, and to me in particular. He’s the reason why I do this.”
At one point, a 1979 car accident almost ended her competitive career, and there have been other challenges, but she says her father’s inspiration always pulled her through. “We all have our vicissitudes of life,” she says. “I’ve had four major losses in the past 15 years, including his passing last year. That accident left me feeling vulnerable, and I thought I would never swim again. But every time my determination got me back in the pool.”
Jane considers her entire aquatics career to be an act of paying forward by teaching the benefits of aquatics. Last year, she introduced a new program called WETS for Vets (Water Exercise Techniques for Veterans) that was also inspired by her dad’s history as a veteran. “It offers holistic water exercise techniques for rehabilitating the mind, body and spirit of military veterans re-entering civilian life,” she explains. “It’s fantastic therapy to get these men and women in the pool. Water is always great for healing.”
The National Senior Games holds a special place in Jane’s heart. “Masters swim meets are great, but there’s more Type A people who are focused on the win. There’s much more camaraderie in the Senior Games, and that makes it more fun. It’s the best of both worlds, and it doesn’t get better than that.”