Philipp Djang, 65, Las Cruces, New Mexico
The pandemic has disrupted all sports, but perhaps none as much as swimming. Cross training is a part of preparing for competition, but when there’s no pool, swimmers are literally fish out of water.
We called Philipp Djang, one of the most decorated swimmers in National Senior Games history, to see how he was managing the pause in action. He reported he had just moved 1,700 pounds of flagstone in a home landscaping project. “We still have 36 tons of gravel to spread around. The first day I think we moved seven tons of rock, and that night I slept like a rock!”
Philipp, or “The Phish” as he is nicknamed, admits that was the first night in over a month that he had slept through the night and not tossed and turned missing his routines. “But I’m an optimist for the most part,” he adds. “Things will get going again, facilities will open up, but we’ll get back to a different normal. What that is, I don’t know.”
At just the age of 65, he has already amassed 34 Gold and eight Silver Medals and set 21 NSGA records since his National Senior Games debut in 2005. In masters swimming, he has set 15 national records and 10 individual world records. “My last record was broken in December. That one lasted seven years.”
History reveals Philipp is a chronic overachiever. He graduated high school at only 16 “as a nerdy kid,” holds four degrees, and has logged a distinguished 35-year military career, much of it at the Army Research Laboratory at White Sands, New Mexico. He was even awarded a patent in 2011. Of everything, though, he’s most proud to have been born and spent most of his life in Las Cruces.
Philipp competed in high school and his first four college years before exploring triathlons, marathons and playing racquetball. At 45, he got back in the lane with masters swimming. “I did it just for fun and to hang out with the guys, but at my first meet I accidentally set a world record. That was a surprise to me!”
He was guided into Senior Games by Dr. Jack Welch, a state legend who had started the men’s and women’s swim teams at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. “Jack taught me to swim at age 10,” he relates. “He was the swimming and track event coordinator for the New Mexico Senior Olympics, and I helped him out for about five years when I started. He has also competed in them.”
Philipp says he is “doing all kinds of dry land stuff” to train and estimates it will take at least six weeks in the pool to be in competition shape. “You have to find the intrinsic value of exercise, whether it’s in the water or on a track,” he says. “There’s motivation for medals and records, but it’s really about getting out there to exercise, have fun and suffer a little bit.”
He also misses being around his fellow swimmers. “It’s a common feeling right now, being isolated,” he notes. “I’m sure they’re missing the camaraderie as much as I am. You can chat online and over the phone, but that’s nothing like standing stark naked in the shower telling jokes!”
“A number of my friends say they would give their eye teeth just to see their teammates again,” he continues. “Athletes are all in the same boat, except all the swimmers want to be in the water!”
Philipp is especially excited about the location of the next National Senior Games in November of 2021. “My masters competition team is actually Swim Fort Lauderdale, so I am really looking forward to compete there.”
Reflecting on his shared plight with other athletes, he concludes, “It will be a chance for all of the athletes to show they’ve weathered this crisis and they’ve come through stronger than ever. It will be a great way for us to celebrate as champions over the pandemic.”