Comeback Kate

/ / 2020 PB, Personal Best Featured Athletes

Kate Fisken, 77, Bethesda, Maryland

People who know Kate Fisken say she has a heart as big as the ocean. Perhaps that’s why she swims, but it’s really a statement reflecting on the retired Maryland accountant’s lifelong commitment to serve others, which dates back to when President Kennedy called on citizens to do “what you can do for your country.” Kate served in India with the Peace Corps after college, and has been doing volunteer work with nonprofits since, including more recent board service with her local masters swimming club, the Maryland Senior Olympics and the National Senior Games Association.

Swimming also developed Kate’s tenacity and resilience through high school competition and taking on the wild surf of the Pacific Ocean while in college. Being pre-Title IX, there was no college swim team for her to join. Opportunities to swim were more limited during her Peace Corps service, and afterwards, as she says in the following interview, “My family came along, and you know what happens.”

Ironically, a 1999 car accident injury and a bad twist on a yoga mat five years later pointed Kate back to the pool. Her spine injury presented options of invasive surgery or radical rehabilitation therapy and pain tolerance. Kate chose to commit to the hard work, and the swimming lane became her path to restored health and ongoing wellness. She couldn’t swim even one lane on her first day back in the pool, but in less than a year she completed her goal to finish the one-mile Chesapeake Bay swim in 2006. To date, she has since competed in over 115 masters swimming events, including Maryland Senior Olympics and regular appearances at National Senior Games since 2009. 

Life never stops presenting challenges to overcome, and Kate had to face a bout with uterine cancer in early 2017. She was disappointed to cancel plans for a triathlon relay with two former Peace Corps friends, but equally determined to at least show up in Birmingham for the 2017 National Senior Games presented by Humana. Not only did she compete, she logged her best time for the 500 Freestyle event.

Kate Fisken and her supportive husband Bernie (also a past Peace Corps volunteer) are now retired from the company they began, and she reports her sciatica is now manageable with over the counter medications. In what follows, she repeatedly credits her swimming with restoring her health, and for staying motivated through the goals she sets for Senior Games competition. Her athletic experiences have enriched her life and motivated her more to volunteer and to present a Personal Best life example. She hopes to inspire others to follow their own path to healthy aging…and to also consider giving back to make the world a little better.

Let’s start at the beginning, Kate. How long have you been swimming?

I grew up in Seattle and that’s where I learned to swim when I was two or three. I had two brothers and a sister. My grandmother was very instrumental in teaching me how to swim. She rode horses and was quite an athlete.

When she came to visit, she put me on the kitchen table and showed me how to move my arms and kick. She was something. Both of my grandmothers were very athletic, and so were my mother and my father.

Kate (3rd from left, top row) with other local youth swim champs in newspaper clipping.

Were you on a swim team as a youth?

I started swimming competitively in junior high in Pennsylvania and in high school in Ohio. We moved back east and I swam in summer leagues. But when I got to college there wasn’t women’s sports, so I’m one of these women that were caught by pre-Title IX.

After college, when did swimming come back for you? 

Well, I am an ocean swimmer and I did a lot of body surfing and board surfing while I was in college in California. My mom was a great ocean swimmer, too. She was amazing and set that example for me.

I joined the Peace Corps and went to India after college from 1964 to 1966. Wherever I could swim, I swam. But what happened after was basically my family came along, and you know what happens. The day-to-day took over, and I didn’t swim again until after I was severely injured in a car accident in 1999.

Tell us about that experience.

My husband and I were living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and we were commuting back and forth to downtown Washington, DC where we had our public accounting practice. One morning – it must’ve been before 6 O’clock – we drove onto some black ice in our 4-wheel drive truck. I was driving and we skidded off the road in the middle of cornfields and cattle. I told Bernie, ‘OK, let’s call AAA and we’ll have them get us past the black ice, or we will just wait here until the sun comes up.’ He took a flare to the top of the hill. I took my seatbelt off to get my phone to call AAA. Just as that happened, a truck came over the hill and hit the corner of our truck. I did a 180 and flew out of the truck.

Kate spent most of her Peace Corps duty living in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, but also found some fun activity such as an invitation to be crew in a sail boat race. She and her skipper Sammy (left) came in first place and were given cups by the Maharaja & Maharini Raj Singh.

How terrifying!

I can still hear to this day my husband screaming my name and I kept saying ‘I’m OK I’m OK I’m OK.’ Then another three or four vehicles drove past and someone called 911. The next thing I remember was being put on a board. They said, ‘Raise your head,’ and I couldn’t. They took me to the nearest hospital in Warrenton, Virginia. I was pretty badly bruised on my back and my arms but they couldn’t find anything wrong. When we went home I stayed in bed for a couple of days. I was pretty beat up, but I recovered.

Then about five years later, that was in June 2004, I’m in a yoga class and my knees were over on the right side of me. I twisted my shoulders and hurt something. I said, ‘Oh no,’ and couldn’t get off the floor. I had twisted my spine and there must have been a hairline fracture. I have what’s called a Grade 2 Spondylolisthesis in my L4 vertebrae.  What that means is my spinal column kinda takes a little detour-it comes down and then goes around L4 and then it goes back to the L5 and down to the coccyx. It’s still there.

Did they operate to correct it? Like a fuse?

No fuse, all the doctors wanted to do what’s called a laminectomy to take bone from my hip, take out the vertebrae, and fill it in with screws and rods. I then met with Dr. Arthur Kobrine, who is the doctor who saved Jim Brady when he was shot in the Reagan assassination attempt.

He told me that it’s a very tough operation and you are not guaranteed anything, and then asked if I could live with the pain. I told him it doesn’t happen every day and I can live with it as long as I have some meds. He said, ‘OK, if you don’t want to have an operation, we have to do radical physical therapy, and if you can lose a little weight and swim, you might want to try that and see if it can help your recovery.’ That’s where my journey led me, and I am very grateful to him.

You were fortunate to have a great physician caring for you.

Yes, and I grew up in a family where we didn’t go to doctor right away. We would take our time and see if the body would heal itself. That’s just the way I was raised, but obviously there is a huge role for medical expertise particularly with what happened to me.

The first day I went to the pool I had to get over what my body looked like in a swimsuit. [Laugh] Once I got in the pool, I couldn’t even swim a length. During the fall of 2004, I would make myself swim longer every day, and then finally I got up to speed by May or June in the following year. I really needed a goal, so that’s why I found masters swimming and my goal was to swim the Chesapeake Bay one-mile swim in 2006.

So you found a goal that took you back to your ocean swimming in the past.

Kate’s Chesapeake Bay Swim plaque

When I was a little kid, one of my dreams was to be like Florence Chadwick. We had a little tiny television and my mom and I watched her swim the English Channel, and I said ‘Someday I’m gonna do that.’  So, my goal was to swim Chesapeake Bay, and that’s what I did.

How have you been getting into swimming shape since coming back? 

I regularly work out with the U.S. masters swimming club in Montgomery County. We are called the Ancient Mariners. Our meet every year is called the Albatross Open, and our newsletter is The Rime. [Laugh]

Ancient Mariners! That’s a really cool masters swim club name.

Yeah, we have a great group. I really enjoy diving in and swimming with other folks, and even when I’m not at masters, I meet a couple of women at the pool on a regular basis. I go Saturday and Sunday mornings, and I try to get in one or two mornings during the week. I don’t keep track, but I know I swim probably between 5,000 and 7,000 meters a week.

You must be sore after a long swim.

We have this joke at the pool, if it doesn’t hurt then you aren’t doing it right. [Laugh]

So that’s how it all got started again, and then I went to the Maryland Senior Olympics swim meet in 2006 and met a woman by the name of Nancy Brown. She really encouraged me to keep it going and be part of the National Senior Games. I later learned that Nancy set a world record for the 100-meter short course backstroke in 1991 and was featured in Sports Illustrated. Sadly, she died from cancer just recently. She coached Maryland masters and was a role model for all of us.

Another inspiration. Has it been smooth waters for you since then?

I wish. Before the 2017 Games I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. I was getting ready to do a triathlon relay in Florida with two of my Peace Corps buddies who are both very accomplished athletes. One was going to do the running, another was going to do the bike, and I was going to be the swimmer. But I had to back out and get an operation.

I was determined – I can’t tell you how determined I was – to go to Birmingham and swim National Senior Games. I didn’t care if I didn’t train but I was going to show up, and I did. I realized that so much of competitive swimming is attitude and your head, because I had my best 500 free and I couldn’t believe it.

Things are much better now. I don’t have the sciatica I used to have. I get it sometimes, but I don’t have it regularly. I don’t take any pain meds except for over the counter Advil.

Have you won medals? 

I should send you a picture of them. When I swam the Chesapeake Bay I came in second and I’m like “What??” Then I went to the Maryland Senior games swim meet and I won medals. Whenever I go to a U.S. masters meet I usually win medals. I’m usually in the top eight. And the older I get, the less competition I find. It’s funny, but we athletes can’t wait to age up into the next age group.  I am 78 as of March, so I’ve got another year in my 75 to 80 group. When I go to Florida in 2021, I’ll be in the top of my age bracket, and then after that I will be the youngster again. [Laugh]

Of course, medals are great, but the health benefits you have gained is the best Gold.

It’s made a big difference in my life. The people I’ve met and swim with on a regular basis are wonderful to be around. The camaraderie is great, and we help each other when we can.  And it keeps me fit! When I go to my doctors they are like, ‘Whatever you are doing, don’t ever stop.’

Do you think about winning or just getting a best time when you compete? 

I try to always get better times. When you compete like I do, you know the swimmers year after year. When I get in the pool, I know who is going to beat me and who probably won’t beat me. One of my great friends is Betsy Beddow from Oklahoma. She is a great swimmer and was in the summer Olympics in 1964. I met her at the National Senior Games in Cleveland in 2013 and she beat me in the 50 free by one-tenth of a second. I said, ‘Betsy you are never going to do that again, I’m gonna beat you the next time.’

There’s a lot of good-natured banter between athletes at this age level. 

I think it’s not about the winning. It’s about the getting up every day with people who you love to be around and have the same goal as you. I mean, we’re not Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky, we’re people who love to exercise and swimming is that sport that fits us best.  I always try to improve my own time so that’s kind of where I’m coming from.

We always see your husband Bernie with you wherever you go. People tell us what a cute couple you are. 

We’ve been married 51 years. Bernie and I got married in 1968 and we lived overseas in Nicaragua and Bolivia after the Peace Corps. He was in the Peace Corps too, in Ecuador, but we didn’t meet each other until we were finished. I met him in Palo Alto, California. Bernie’s career was the same as mine. He has an MBA from Wharton in public accounting, and we had our own business working together for over 25 years.

Why isn’t Bernie swimming?

Bernie doesn’t like the water. He didn’t learn to swim when he was a kid. He grew up in downtown Boston and he didn’t learn to ride a bike or swim until later as an adult.

Well, that’s love for you! Let’s turn to your volunteer spirit of giving back. How did you get involved with volunteering for Senior Games? 

I’ve always been a volunteer with nonprofits and throughout my life. I started out my volunteer work in the Peace Corps in India. President Kennedy asked to give back to your country with your volunteerism.

When I came back, I did all kinds of things. I am proud that I started a daycare for migrant workers in California, and then when I got to DC I started an after school program at my kids elementary school, and started a group called Friends of India. That just sort of mushroomed into working with nonprofits.

I also taught swimming to little kids for Montgomery County in the summer. I like the little kids, the two- to four-year-olds. It’s mainly safety, showing them how to get in and out safely. You know, drowning is now the number one cause of accidental death in children in the U.S. It used to be cars. This motivates me big time. I feel like I’m the grandma giving back. I had to stop when my husband had a stroke, but I’ll probably do it again this summer.

Kate dons a Maryland crab hat in a whimsical moment at an NSGA Annual Conference.

In senior swimming, I was secretary for my masters group several years, and recently became the treasurer. I’m also the treasurer of the Maryland Senior Olympics board.

And we’re happy to have you serving on the NSGA Board of Directors since 2017 too!    

I came to NSGA through Maryland Senior Olympics. The executive director at that time was Ted Wroth and he suggested I ought to try to get on the national board. I gave it a whirl and I enjoy it.

You stay busy, but you obviously enjoy giving back.

Basically, if it wasn’t for NSGA, I wouldn’t have had the goals that I’ve experienced with my swimming. I couldn’t believe when I went to my very first national competition at the 2009 Games in Palo Alto. What a great group of people I found, and how well the games were run. I decided I want to be a part of this and someday give something back to NSGA.

Everyone has their own unique situation, but what advice do you offer to others inspired by you?

People ask me you how did you do this or that, and I tell people that you have to be gentle with yourself. That’s because a lot of people try swimming and then give up because they can’t keep up with x, y, or z. You need to start out slow and just keep doing it. For me it became therapy, it really did, maybe some mental therapy but more physical therapy with my back.

For those who look at us and say, ‘No, I could never do it,’ I encourage them to just do it for recreation and fitness. I’ve swam with a guy who is very crippled now from MS since 2005. He comes to the pool and he gets in the water and he swims. It’s about his wellbeing more than anything, both mental and physical.

What I have accomplished bears witness to the fact that your body can be resourceful if you are given the right instructions. I have always been someone who achieves a goal. It’s not about me. It’s about the ability of a person to achieve a goal and move on with their lives. That’s the best way I can say it.

It’s hard to imagine how you would be doing if you had not jumped back in the water, Kate.

I can’t tell you what a difference this has meant to me and my personal life. It’s given me a goal. It’s given me a reason to get up and go to the pool and it just fits very well in my life.

Obviously, the adrenaline and the high that you get after you exercise is so healthy for your body. There’s the camaraderie you get from your swim mates. With swimming, it is a cardiovascular exercise, and if you can set goals that are realistic you will never stop swimming. My goal is to win a gold medal when I’m 90. I figure I’ll just outlive everybody. [Laugh]