Photo Credit: Brian Fitzgerald
We’ve all heard the expression, “He’s 93 years old, and sharper than a tack.” It expresses our admiration and awe for people who have unusual abilities at an advanced age. Whether those abilities are athletic, artistic or cognitive, people tend to feel surprised that older folks can accomplish things that seem larger than life.
At the Maine Wisdom Summit, hosted by the Maine Council on Aging, I met keynote speaker 66-year-old Pat Gallant-Charette from Westbrook. This past June, Pat successfully swam the 34-mile English Channel in just under 18 hours. She set a record by being the oldest woman to ever make this swim.
You’d think that would be enough for one year. But this year Pat also became the oldest woman to swim the 26-mile crossing between the Hawaiian islands of Molokai and Oahu. For good measure, she threw in the 32-mile crossing from Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario to the provincial capital of Toronto.
So far, this Westbrook mother, grandmother and retired nurse has set five world records in marathon swimming. She has also swum the Catalina Channel in California; the Tsugaru Strait in Japan, and the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland. The prestigious Swimming World Magazine has named Pat “one of the greatest open water swimmers of all time.”
Pat started swimming at the relatively older age of 46. She began as a response to her grief and depression over the sudden death of her younger brother Robbie, who was an avid swimmer and died of a heart attack at the young age of 34.
Robbie had twice won the Peaks to Portland 2.4 mile swim. His untimely death left behind his wife and 3-year-old son and bereaved family. Pat told the audience the story of her son Tom wanting to swim the Peaks to Portland “as a tribute to Uncle Robbie.”
Pat says she responded, “Tom, that’s so sweet, I wish I could do the same.”
Tom replied, “You can, if you try.”
Those few simple words inspired Pat to begin swim training with the goal of swimming the Peaks in honor of her brother. She completed the Peaks, coming in last, and met by her nephew, Robbie’s son, at the finish. Now, all these years later, her life has been radically transformed by her progressively longer and more challenging swims, becoming a multiple world record holder, fueled by her mantra, “You can, if you try.”
Pat still swims the Peaks every year.
So is Pat a superwoman? Well, yes, but also, she was a woman who started her journey swimming laps in a pool at the age of 46. Paraphrasing the old Chinese expression, “Her journey began with a single stroke.”
But what’s the moral of this story? The moral is actually a question. For those of us who are aging, what can we accomplish that would be totally unexpected, if we try? It is a very partial perspective to place Pat’s accomplishment on a pedestal. We see her as an example that we all can have potentials that could enrich our lives, if we try. We don’t have to break world records to enrich our aging years with new endeavors. We can start small and see where it takes us.
Maybe you are drawn to writing poetry, taking a painting class, volunteering your time for useful causes, or walking a mile. Maybe you want to gain control over your diet and blood sugar. Or now that you’ve had that knee or hip surgery, really embrace the rehabilitation exercises and get a new lease on life. Maybe you want to finally downsize the decades of belongings you’ve put off for so long, or heal a damaged relationship that needs communication and reaching out.
Or maybe you’d like to do something seemingly wild like training for an event in the Maine Senior Games. They actually had a 93-year-old javelin and discus thrower this year who had rehabbed herself from back surgery!
Whatever it is that calls to us … Our age is not necessarily the obstacle. It’s our thoughts about our age that can obstruct us, but we can change that.
We can do it if we try!
If you’d like to learn more about Pat Gallant-Charette, you’ll see her blog at www.patgalant.blogspot.com. She has written some cool and inspirational stories.
For more on the Maine Senior Games, visit www.smaaa.org.