By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
Turning 50 can be a disheartening milestone. Folks in their 50s are officially seniors and the evidence is found not only on a driver’s license, but in the mirror, on a bathroom scale and in the frequent correspondence from the American Association of Retired Persons.
But for Paul Olliges of Lake Stevens, turning 50 was an opportunity.
Olliges, a former elite national swimmer, decided he had better things to do than sit around and mourn his 50th birthday last October. So 18 years after he took up triathlons, and five years after resuming a regular swimming regimen, Olliges set out to become one of the nation’s premier masters swimmers.
Four weeks ago, he debuted in the 50-54 age group at the Pacific Northwest Masters Swimming Championships in Federal Way. And he made, you could say, quite a splash.
Olliges won the 50-yard, 100- and 200- backstrokes in his age group, and his time of 59.46 seconds in the 100 broke the Pacific Northwest Association of Masters Swimmers record by more than half a second. He also came within a whisker of setting age-group marks in the 50 and 200.
In addition, Olliges was second in the 1,000 and 1,650 freestyles, and third in the 100 freestyle. He was the top point scorer in his age group.
But as good as he was, Olliges still has higher goals in mind.
“I’m not done,” he said. “My ultimate goal is to see if I can train myself to become a national record holder.” His showing in Federal Way “was just one step to get there, so I’m not satisfied yet.”
Olliges grew up in Tacoma and was fortunate to attend Wilson High School, where he swam for legendary coach Dick Hannula, whose teams won 323 consecutive meets from 1959-83, including 24 straight state championships.
“It was great to be part of that (program),” said Olliges, who graduated from Wilson in 1979. “Dick taught us to work hard, to set goals, to work to achieve those goals, to understand success and failure, and to continue to grow.”
Olliges went on to swim the backstroke and distance freestyle at the University of Washington, and he made four trips to the NCAA championships as a member of UW relay teams.
After college he married and began a career, and he swam mostly for fitness and recreation. He started entering triathlons at 32, and to date he has done about a dozen, mostly the Olympic distance.
But the lure of the pool never really went away. And at 45 Olliges began thinking that maybe, just maybe, he had some stellar strokes yet to swim.
“I think competitiveness is bred in me,” Olliges said. “And what I’ve learned from swimming is being able to set a goal that’s far out, and now let’s see if I can make it.”
He started training at the Lake Stevens High School pool, which is open early in the morning for community swimming. He hooked up with a few other former high school and college swimmers, and together they work out most weekdays.
One of his training partners is Erin Miller, the pool manager who is also a boys and girls swimming coach at the high school.
“With Paul, you knew right away that he had a special talent,” Miller said. “He’s an exceptional athlete. He’s very smooth, very efficient, and that’s what makes a fast swimmer. And his backstroke is just out-of-this-world fast. Faster than some of our freestyles.”
He might be 50, she added, “but you don’t lose a natural talent. It’s the endurance you have to build back up. But the level of swimmer you were in high school and in college, you don’t ever lose that.”
For Olliges, the feeling of standing on the starting block, staring at a length of pool and trying to quell adrenaline-induced jitters is exactly what he remembers from his younger years.
“That hasn’t changed at all,” he said. “The thrill of competition is unnerving. It’s not a comfortable feeling, but you train to make sure your mind is ready to prepare for that event.”
And the sense of accomplishment, he added, remains “exhilarating.”
As he goes forward, Olliges is realistic about his goals in swimming.
“I’m probably never going to be in the same physical shape I was at 21,” he pointed out. Given the demands of job and family, “I can’t train six days a week, twice a day, and put in 10,000 yards a day (as he did in college). So my times are off, but I probably have a higher ranking now than when I was younger because of less people competing.
“At this point in my life, it’s a balance. I’m trying to make sure I have a successful family because that’s very important to me. I want to be successful at work (he is a consumer products manager at Precor, a Woodinville company that manufactures exercise equipment). And I want to be successful in my swimming. So I’m setting goals in each of those.”
In the coming years Olliges expects to compete at masters national championships, and he hopes to win national titles and set national records.
“There are some days you don’t feel like working out,” he admitted. “But this is a path, a journey. It’s going to keep me healthy and I get satisfaction out of it, so I’m not done. I’m just going to keep working.
“I believe I can do anything I put my mind to. So I’m going to continue to swim and continue to get better because I believe I can do that.”