At 87, Marilyn Just Can't Stop Swimming... or Much Else
Nobody would blame Marilyn Buechner if she took a little time off from swimming.
She has chronic bronchitis. She has fallen twice during the past 10 months (but is healing well).
She has leukemia, but thankfully is symptom-free.
Marilyn may find a few obstacles in her path, but this feisty yet sweet woman of 87 years has no plans to slow down.
Raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Marilyn began swimming competitively in high school.
She went to aquatic school and taught lifesaving, coached the girls swim team at the local YMCA, worked as a lifeguard and even swam competitively for 2½ miles in Lake Geneva.
"I met my first husband, Bob, at the Y," Marilyn recalls. "He was a swimmer too, and we got married when I was 20."
Sadly, Bob died at 42, when Marilyn was just 38. She had seven children at home, and her friends helped keep her going during her five years as a widow. Marilyn wed Jerry, her second husband, in 1975, and they have been together 44 years, with 21 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, with another on the way.
Several days each week, Marilyn gets into her Toyota Prius and drives six miles from her home on Madison's east side to the Aquatic Center at UW Health at The American Center, where she swims breaststroke and backstroke, capped off with some twists and turns in the warm water therapy pool.
Started swimming again at 72
"I started swimming again about 15 years ago, around the time my father died," Marilyn says. "My doctor told me it was a good time to find something you like and be good to yourself, so I went back to the pool."
Deb Stevens, a UW Health Wellness aquatics instructor, and swim director for the Wisconsin Senior Games, says Marilyn's tenacity and stamina are something to behold.
"I've seen people at the pool stop, watch her walk in and wonder ‘What is she doing here?'" says Deb. "Then she goes down the ladder and gets in the pool and swims. Forget that she is 87. Her persistence and positive energy are so inspiring."
Today, Marilyn can show you more than 70 medals she has won at countless city, state and national senior swim events over the past 15 years.
"I keep a few medals in my purse all the time, with the blue ribbons hanging out so they are easy to grab," Marilyn says with a twinkle in her eye. "I even bring them to church."
Planned to compete in the 2019 National Senior Games
After participating in the National Senior Games in 2013, Marilyn was training for Nationals again in spring 2019. With a fan club of family members ready to join her in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Marilyn qualified to swim in three backstroke and two breaststroke events. Unfortunately, she fell just a week before nationals and didn't make the trip.
"I guess pride came before the fall," Marilyn says, chuckling. Thankfully, she is rehabilitating well and feeling better each day.
So many people far younger than Marilyn struggle to stay active, but Marilyn knows that swimming keeps her feeling rejuvenated physically and mentally.
She also doesn't easily take "no" for an answer. After a previous fall in August 2018, Marilyn's physician ruled her out from competing in the Wisconsin Senior Olympics the following month. With a walker in tow, Marilyn kept training and competed at the games anyhow.
Her next competitive event is the state Senior Olympics in September. Marilyn also plans to swim in the next National Senior Games in 2021, when Marilyn turns 89. With good genes on her side – her father lived to be 96 and her mother 88 – Marilyn looks like a good bet to reach her goal.
"I don't want to give up"
"I don't want to give up," she says matter-of-factly when asked why she keeps so active. "I encourage people who have not been swimming in a while to get in the water." For those who may fear the big lap pool, Marilyn strongly recommends starting in the warm water therapy pools, such as those found at UW Health at The American Center on Madison's far east side or UW Health Research Park on the west side.
Katie Heiser, Aquatics Supervisor at The American Center, says the warm water not only helps people with arthritis or other body aches by warming the joints, but also makes it possible to move muscles that may not be so flexible out of the water.
"And, you float like a cork in the warm water," adds Marilyn.
Whether on land or in water, Marilyn Buechner is an unforgettable woman who befriends almost everyone she meets.
"I tell them my name is Marilyn." Pausing for a moment, while tilting her head back with a smile, she adds, "Like Monroe."
"They usually remember my name after that."