Swim Fitness Articles
Sports Illustrated "Life of Reilly" - Jim Eubank
Issue date: March 24, 2003
You know about Faces in the Crowd, right? It's maybe the best thing we do. It's just people's achievements, simple as that. No agents, contracts or Hummers. They never fail to astound.
Amber Blotch, 16, won her 1,062nd straight tennis match using a spatula.
But when I read about an 85-year-old swimmer awhile back, Jim Eubank of Oceanside, Calif., I knew somebody was yanking our chain. It wasn't just what the caption said -- that he'd broken the 85-to-89-age-group swimming world record in the 800-meter freestyle by more than 14 seconds and set two other records besides -- it was his picture.
Look at all that hair! Where are all the wrinkles? If he's 85, why doesn't his neck look like beef jerky? Who's in charge of his birth certificate? The Dominican Republic?
I called him. "No, I'm not 85," he said.
"I'm 86 now."
I didn't buy it. I asked him if it were true that he still had the world record in the 800 meters. "No," he said.
There you go!
"Now I've got the world records in the 100, 200, 400 and 1,500 too." Tired of my pestering, he finally said, "Come on out, and I'll take you on!"
Take me on? I'm half his age! I hardly swim, but I knew I could whip an 86-year-old geezer. So I said, O.K., strap on your Speedo, Pops.
He kept postponing. Once it was something about a double hernia. Another time he had to get the battery in his pacemaker replaced. Hah! Finally, I flew out there, ready to call his bluff. By now, he was 87. (Cough, cough.)
When I drove up to his North San Diego County ranch, he met me in the driveway. I hated him immediately. He had this huge shock of thick, white hair. He looked like Lloyd Bridges at 50. Or Dorian Gray. I demanded to see a birth certificate.
He let me look at the stuff on his walls while he changed. Here he was, in 1937, swimming against 1932 Olympic gold medalist Buster Crabbe. (The paper said he was 22. Checks out.) Here he was, the same year, standing next to movie swim star Esther Williams, accepting first-place trophies from the Mile Hile Championships. Here was an article about him volunteering for a "special regiment" in 1942, even after being warned that the chances of surviving the assignment were 10%. Those men formed one of the first units that would become known as the Navy SEALs.
Turns out this guy performed feats of preposterous courage. Swimming under Japanese warcraft with nothing more than a knife in his teeth. Scouting enemy-held beaches. Aquatic guerrilla tactics. And to think I feel patriotic for taking my hat off for the national anthem.
After the war he got married and then dived right into the real estate business. He and his partner were among the first to cut into and build homes in the Hollywood Hills.
He didn't waste any time getting back into the pool either. This is a man who has won his age group at the La Jolla Roughwater Swim in 55 of the last 56 years. The last time, they asked him to say a few words. "Never smoke, drink or mess with women," he warned the men, "until I've checked them out first."
Suddenly he was back in the room, in his swim trunks. "Well," he said. "You ready?"
His chest was massive and the skin over it was so tight, you could see where the silver-dollar-sized pacemaker rests above his heart. Hell, you could almost read the serial number. His waist was 30 inches tops, his legs rippled, his arms toned. "Uh, I think I'm feeling a double hernia coming on," I said.
He led us out of the gorgeous ranch house he'd built himself, past the painting of a 60-foot boat he'd built himself, to the three-lane heated lap pool he'd built himself. Somebody has got to tell Tom Brokaw about this guy.
I knew my only chance was an all-out sprint of 50 yards, two lengths of the pool. His wife of 57 years, Vera, started us. About 15 yards into it I looked up from my thrashing to see him watching me, his stroke smooth and splashless.
He beat me by about a length, but he could've beaten me by about the length of Omaha Beach. He shook my hand and said, "You gave me a real scare there!"
Right. It would be like Reagan saying to Mondale, "Whoa! You almost nipped me there at the end!" It had to be the new battery.
Let's toast your victory over a beer, I offered. "Sure," he said. "Just let me stretch out with a few more laps." He did 70 more -- a mile. Does it every day.
While he swam, it hit me that this is one of the coolest men I'd ever come across. Heroic. Classy. Brave. Buffed. Wise. Kind. "What goals could you possibly still have?" I asked him that night, at one of the 20 restaurants he's developed.
"Well, the next age group is 90-and-above," he said. "So, in a year or two I'm going to have to start getting in shape again."
Forget Faces in the Crowd. Is it too late to give him a cover?
Sports Illustrated senior writer Rick Reilly pens the weekly "Life of Reilly" column in the magazine.
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