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Reporter’s Notebook: Swimmer Daniela Barnea

Breaking records at her first Senior Games

It’s becoming an exciting but familiar story in senior athletics—one that’s likely to be repeated in the remaining days of the National Senior Games in Palo Alto, Calif.

Here’s the synopsis:

• Older adult, never a great athlete in younger days, decides to get in shape.

• Is cajoled or stumbles into a sport.

• Much to his or her surprise, begins to demonstrate a real proficiency.

• Starts to train hard and seriously, begins competing.

• Stands on podium at Senior Games with medal draped around neck, children and grandkids cheering from the stands.

No matter how many other aging athletes here have followed this path to success, few are likely to do it as dramatically as Daniela Barnea, a 65-year-old swimmer from Palo Alto.

In the first three days of these games, Barnea won four events and in the process set four Senior Games records, in the 50- and 100-yard breaststroke, the 100-yard butterfly and the 100-yard individual medley. She added to her wins Tuesday taking the 50-yard butterfly in a record 37.60 seconds (old record was 41.39). Today she competes in the 200-yard breaststroke.

As Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz did in the Olympics, Barnea is winning multiple golds, setting multiple records and dominating the competition in her events.

Example: Her record time of 1 minute 27.25 seconds for the 100-yard butterfly on Saturday broke the previous Senior Games record (set in 2003 by Patricia Tullman of Valrico, Fla.) by more than 10 seconds, a huge margin in swimming.

What’s even more remarkable is that Barnea, who started swimming as a masters athlete in the mid-1990s, only got serious about some of these events in the last five years.

Now she’s still trying to come to terms with it all.

Not the senior records. Just the senior part.

“This is my first senior meet,” she says with a laugh, “because I just turned 65 and until now, I still have had a hard time accepting that I’m a senior.”

Until recently, most older adults didn’t train or perform the way Barnea does. While she swam competitively (but she says, without distinction) as a girl growing up in Israel, “it was nothing like what I do now,” she says.

What she does now includes two pool workouts a day—a total of about two to three hours in the water—plus weight training in the gym to keep her strong and daily stretching and yoga classes to keep her supple. She trains under the supervision of top coaches—including 2004 U.S. Olympic swimmer Dana Kirk. And she travels the country and the world to compete. Soon after these games, Barnea will head to Indianapolis for the U.S. Masters Swimming National Championships.

Still, competing in Palo Alto, where she has lived for the past 17 years (she came to the United States 35 years ago), was special. “I had my kids, my husband, friends and acquaintances watching,” says Barnea, who works in the Palo Alto school district as an English tutor for international students. “Even at 8 a.m., they made the effort to come. That felt really awesome. I’m always telling them, ‘I’m swimming, I’m winning,’ and now for the first time they saw me do it.”

One of her friends who attended the games was shocked. “She called me later that day and said, ‘You have such a beautiful stroke. I had no idea you were that good.’ ”

Health and fitness writer John Hanc teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury.

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