Cathy Cornell, 62, Bakersfield, California
We all have challenges to face. The many senior athletes we have profiled in this program have encountered a wide range of situations, but they all point to a common truth: you have to find ways to deal with life’s obstacles to successfully pursue your Personal Best. For some, these challenges have been extreme, but no one has arguably faced a tougher roadblock than Cathy Cornell of Bakersfield, California.
Water has always held Cathy’s fascination. Based on a tragic drowning loss in the family history, her parents insisted that all of their children learn to swim. Her first swim meet was at age four, and the pool became her second home. By high school, she was a team MVP, and she was then named All American and Female Athlete of the Year for 1976 at Bakersfield Junior College. When she was offered a full ride scholarship to swim at a four-year college, she began to believe that a long-held dream to swim in the Olympics might be a real possibility.
But Cathy’s entire world suddenly turned upside down when, at age 18, she was raped by the manager of the pool where she worked. The perpetrator threatened her to remain silent, and then stalked her as she sought to begin her college life. Frightened, intimidated, and ashamed, Cathy withdrew from school, and said nothing about it for the next 32 years.
Cathy continued to teach swimming and seeking solace in the water, but the stress from trying to deny the repressed feelings from the past began to affect her health and relationships, and she quit swimming when she took on a demanding teaching job in her mid-30s. After a failed marriage and mounting problems coping with her post traumatic stress disorder, she finally sought counseling. Asked what she liked to do when she was younger, she spoke about her love of the water. Cathy was advised to get back in the pool as healing therapy. She found a local swim club that included older swimmers and jumped back in.
It was not long afterwards that Cathy felt the old competitive urge return, and she started entering meets and slowly began to regain her strength and skills. When she traveled 100 miles to Los Angeles for the 2014 Pasadena Senior Games, she discovered that her results had also qualified her to represent California in the National Senior Games, which she was told was like the Olympics for seniors. In a moment, her dream was rekindled, and Cathy vowed to take back what had been stolen from her as a teenager.
The rest of the story is a testimonial to human triumph over adversity, as Cathy has attended two national Games and finally earned two medals at the 2017 National Senior Games presented by Humana. The following conversation recounts the events of her life and reveals how she considered the water to be the medicine that has restored her health and her sense of well being. The fact that she had the courage to speak openly about her sexual abuse before the issue exploded with the #Metoo movement of late 2017 is an indication that she had indeed made great strides to regain a normal life.
Cathy Cornell has found her Personal Best, and now sees a future full of new challenges as a senior competitor. She hopes that sharing her own inspirations and lessons learned will provide the spark to help others to overcome whatever challenges they have, and to pursue a lifestyle of healthy aging.
When did you start swimming?
My parents had a big part in it. When my dad was young he watched his younger brother drown. They were out on a lake and he couldn’t save him because he didn’t know how to swim. So it was very important to both of them that all of their kids learn how to swim.
I was born and raised here in the [San Joaquin] Valley around Bakersfield. You swam to stay cool here, and I always swam as much as I could. I started lessons at the age of three, and eight months later I was in my first meet in the recreation league, doing the 25 back and 25 free. I remember crying all the way down because I was in the six and under group and I was afraid to be by the six-year-olds. [Laugh]
I started lifeguarding when I was 16, was a most valuable player in high school, and went on to Bakersfield Junior College where I qualified to be All-American and Female Athlete of the Year in 1976. I then got a full ride scholarship to go to Whittier College to swim. My dream was always to go to the Olympics, and I felt this was my chance. I didn’t know if I could be good enough to go. I might not have been good enough, but it was a dream, just like everyone when you are in a sport that you absolutely love.
But I turned down the scholarship when I was 18. That was when the incident – the sexual assault – took place.
Oh, my, Cathy. We don’t need all the details, but what happened?
We got a new manager at the pool where I worked as a lifeguard and assistant manager. [Sigh] He raped me, and threatened me. He even stalked me when I went to check out the new college. I didn’t feel safe, so I had to come back. I let it [the scholarship] go. I feel like he stole that from me.
Did you tell anyone about it at the time?
I kept all that a secret. If was a lot different back then in the 70s. I had three brothers, and we were all raised in the Church. I just felt it would be a big shame on the family.
How long did you wait to talk to anyone about this?
About 32 years.
Holy Mackerel! Did you stop swimming right after that happened?
No, I continued swimming through an age group program here. I had to keep swimming somehow, because it was like medicine for me. That was the way I coped with it, to get into the water. A lot of other people might turn to drugs and alcohol, but me, I turned to my swimming.
I got into coaching high school swimming. We had undefeated teams and turned out All American swimmers. I then was a private swimming teacher for 15 years. But in my mid-30s, I got out of swimming. I had taken a job teaching kids at risk, you know, those with specific learning disabilities. Many were involved with crime. I called them my little gangsters.
A lot of other pressure had started piling upon me by then. I went through a bad marriage that had been very abusive for about a year and a half. Because of the assault, I was affected by PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and had a lot of anxiety and depression. I had to retire early due to my disability.
And, before I got back into swimming, I was plagued horribly by migraines, and found out I had a hole in my heart. I got surgery to fix that and the migraines went away. I’m fine, I’m doing great now, but it added to my worry at the time. It all just piled up. I finally broke. You can’t carry it around forever.
What gave you a glimpse of the path to heal yourself?
I never dreamed this would happen to me at the time. The pool was my second home, it was my life. And when it happened at the pool after hours, it was like my safety zone was trampled. It put a sour note on my passion, and I struggled with it until I eventually quit swimming back then. He took away my chance for an Olympics, and ultimately this took away my love of swimming. But after 32 years, I decided I wasn’t going to let that happen anymore.
I knew I had to go back through my life and pull out the weeds, you know? I went for some therapy, and the counselor helped me tremendously. She asked me what I liked to do in the past, and I told her I always swam. She said, ‘You’ve got to get back into that for your health.’
By this time, it was 2013, and I was overweight and out of shape. I was on seven medications. But I decided I would get in and see what I could do. I found the Gold Waves masters club here in Bakersfield. When I got back in the water, it felt pretty good, and my competitive edge started to kick back in.
I entered a local meet after four months and did horrible. I kept with it and started going to meets down in L.A. every three or four months. It didn’t take long before I was bringing home first and second place medals and I felt like I was back in my game. I went to the Pasadena Senior Games in 2014 and didn’t even realize it was the qualifying event for National Senior Games, and that going to that was like the Olympics for seniors. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I can still do this. It was always my dream to go to THE Olympics, but I can still do this.’
When I went for my first Nationals in Minneapolis in 2015, it was a real eye opener. I only entered three events, and I did place in the top eight. The competition was tougher than I thought-there’s some good swimmers in there! I came back and started with a personal exercise trainer two or three times a week on cardio and weights. I started shooting for the next Nationals in Alabama, because the first games ignited my flame again. I wanted to win a medal in 2017.
How did you do in Birmingham?
I entered five events at the 2017 Birmingham Games, and I won two bronze medals. In my first event I was seeded fifth. I bumped out two and moved to third for my first bronze.
Nice. Congrats! We looked your times up, and you actually logged the 10th best time ever for the 500 freestyle for women 60-64. You had some serious competition ahead of you to come in third.
The ladies ahead of me were really good. In my first event, the 200 freestyle, I had placed fifth in 2015, and I moved up to third for my first bronze. That set the pace. In the 500, I was actually ahead for 16 lengths in the 500 and we turned together on the last four lengths. I got beat out of the silver by less than one second. But I did win the bronze and bettered my time. I like the distance races. I’m pleased, but I know I can do better. I’m going to Albuquerque next year and I know I’m going to do better.
And you were brave enough to talk about this for a local TV news story that we saw in June, months before all of the sexual abuse news and the #metoo movement blew up.
I do tell people my story now. It took a long time and a lot of therapy, but I’ve beat it and can now talk about this and I like for them to hear it. I’m sure there are others out there that are struggling and wallowing through life unhappy.
My niece works for that local TV station and told them about it. I was a little nervous, wondering how this was going to come out. Was I going to get this message out the way I wanted? I also felt a little pressure because that was right before the 2017 Nationals and here I was on TV telling them I wanted to win a medal. They did a follow up story when I went home, and I was so happy. I did it! [Laugh]
I always tell everyone, it’s never too late to chase your dreams. I just had to realize that determination has no age limit on it. You can’t let your age and the fear factor stop you. That’s how I look at it.
You can’t let everything that life brings your way keep you from it, either.
No, you can’t. That’s what was happening to me for so many years. I just finally had to get everything together and get back to where I was. I can’t be any happier now. Making that choice to get back in the water was the best thing for me. I’m only on one medication now. Swimming was the cheapest medication and the cheapest insurance I could find. [Laugh]
It’s great that you are really enjoying life now. Are you still apprehensive about relationships with men?
For many years I was. I told people I hated men, but down inside I really didn’t. I dreamed all through college about growing up, being married and having a family. You just don’t know what life is going to deal you and it changed my whole outlook and made college difficult. It escalated and just kinda exploded on me.
I’m single now but it’s OK. I’m so involved in my swimming and my work. But I have the attitude that if it’s meant for me to meet somebody out there, I’ll meet him. But if it doesn’t happen, life will go on.
Certainly, people have already told you they’ve been inspired by your story.
Yes, and it reminds me of last summer. My mom is 89 now, but she wanted to go with me to Birmingham. We went to a barbecue place and met these three basketball ladies. They asked if we were there for the National Senior Games. Before I knew it, they were asking me questions and I opened up just a little bit about my story. They said, ‘Wow, they should write up a story about you.’ I just laughed it off, and then you got in touch with me. [Laugh]
We’re happy that National Senior Games helped to heal and make you whole again.
When I marched in with the California flag in the Celebration of Athletes, both in 2015 and last year, I had a tear come down my cheek. It boosted me because there were times I didn’t think I would ever overcome all of this. You have all these obstacles, and you have to jump over some, or go around some, and some knock you down, and you have to get back up. It was very emotional to have that feeling of accomplishment as I was walking in. ‘I’m here.’
I was competing and winning medals and ribbons in the local meets, but still didn’t have the icing on my cake yet. I kept flashing back to my college time. Could I have ever made it to the Olympics? So, when I saw that you can qualify and compete for the Olympics for seniors, that made me feel really good. I could have the icing on my cake.
It also felt good when I was inducted into my high school’s athletic hall of fame in February of 2016.
Does it inspire you to watch the older ladies swim?
Oh yeah. I looked at them and said, ‘That’s going to be me one of these days.’ I’ll go as long as I can. I know what the downside of stopping is like, and it’s not good.
It’s been a wellness thing for me, very much so. Everybody needs to do something, whether it’s swimming, basketball, volleyball, or whatever, you need to do something. I knew that swimming was my medicine, and I had to get back to it. I knew that’s where my healing and good feeling would be found.
You know, I’ve always kept a Scripture in mind. It’s from Jeremiah 29:11. “For I know the plans I have for you - plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” That’s what I’ve lived on, right there. I felt I was robbed of even having a chance to attempt to go to the Olympics. So I decided to go back to reclaim what was stolen from me. And I did.
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