My Blog

January 1, 2018

Lessons Learned from Elderly Mothers on Exercise

At 98, she took no pills at all.

The doctors and nurses, when I took her in for a check-up, were flabbergasted to learn that she was on no heart medication, no thyroid, no high cholesterol, no blood thinner, no blood thickener, nothing. Even when she arrived here to stay with me, she took none of any of the myriad of pills that are “normally” prescribed for the American public. She just didn’t go to doctors.

I believe, and I think she believed, that the reason for her good health was her swimming. No matter where she was, she did her best to find a YMCA or a community pool where she could swim. And it wasn’t just a little paddling. She swam 21 laps in a 50-meter pool, that’s half a mile, every day of the week.

She learned her love of exercise from her father. He was a Gorton, descended from the Gortons of Rhode Island (yes, the same ones that make Gorton fish today), and grew up in upstate New York. As a young man he prided himself on physical fitness.

Fitness and exercise originated in Central Europe during the beginning of the 20th century as a response to the pallid, languorous Victorian ideals of the late 1800s. At the time, for ladies, and even gentlemen, it was considered gauche or low-class to have a tan. It meant one worked outside for a living. And, of course, proper ladies always used a parasol (the name ‘para’ – Spanish “for” and sol – sun) to keep off the sun as well as wearing paralyzing corsets that prevented any movement much more strenuous than curtseying. Even waltzing was a challenge.

In 1904, J. P. Mueller, a Dane, published a pamphlet that he called “My System.” Unlike the many German exercise regimens that followed, it consisted of 15 minutes of simple stretching and toning exercises that could be done at home without weights or equipment.   (

My grandfather, a dynamic young entrepreneur at the time, evidently took up the exercise regimen, as did many others of his time. Probably most famous was Teddy Roosevelt (and, by the way, Roosevelt never used the nickname “Teddy” so we shouldn’t, but we do). He was a weak and sickly boy and overcame his illnesses with exercise and Western sunshine.

Mom remembers her father doing handstands and flips across the yard when he was in his 50s. He encouraged his three daughters (by a second marriage to my Kentucky grandmother) to be athletic. Although all the girls played tennis, the two youngest, Carolyn (called Kelly), and Ruth both played at a nearly professional level.

Mom, since they lived in Miami, took up swimming. Miami, also a turn-of-the-century phenomenon, had exploded into popularity when Henry Flagler, a partner in Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, completed his railroad line all the way to Key West. His magnificent hotels, built down the length of the Florida peninsula, all included swimming pools.

Coral Gables, the lovely and prestigious Miami suburb, was built by George Merrick during the 1920s. Among his extravaganzas was the Biltmore Hotel, an elegant towering hotel with the largest swimming pool in the world at that time. Canals with gondolas copied from Venice carried guests around the grounds.

Mom joined the other young Miamians who swam at the pool and received training from some of the best coaches in the country. Little surprise that the 1936 United States Olympic team recruited swimmers from the Biltmore pool. Mom missed the cut by less than one tenth of a second. But her love of swimming was set.

A short aside on the history of the Biltmore which pleases me no end. While I was in school at the University of Miami, I worked as a Nurses’ Aide at the Biltmore which had been turned into a Veterans’ Hospital at the end of World War II. Its early magnificence was still evident although tarnished and dusty. The hospital was closed in 1968, just three years after I left. The huge building was abandoned. With incredible foresight, in 1983 the city of Coral Gables put $55 million into restoring the beautiful hotel. Today it is again a glorious example of the turn-of-the-century hotels which still grace Florida, Texas and California.

While she was at Ward Belmont in Nashville, Tennessee, she joined the swim team. However, it gets chilly in the winter up there. This was no Miami. She remembered her hair freezing into icicles as she left the indoor pool to go to class. She decided to give up swimming until she returned to Miami in 1940.

Once Mom married and moved to Mexico, it was a little more challenging to find a convenient swimming pool. Mexico City, at 7,382 feet, is cool and few people have pools in their back yards. Much less heated pools.

But she found a way. I believe she had all four of us kids swimming before we could walk. (I still remember her chasing us around the deck of Jan Lundahl’s pool to make us get in the frigid water to do our laps). There was a lovely pool at the nearby Churubusco Country Club, which we kids snuck into during the summers.

In the 1950s, Esther Williams and her synchronized swimming movies became tremendously popular. Mom joined several other women from the American community and they created their own synchronized swimming group. They even performed for the Mexican President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines at the resort pool in Tehuacan. We kids were included as well, although, since we were reluctant participants, I doubt our performances were quite up to par.

After our return to the United States in 1963, Mom stopped swimming for a while. She was too focused on keeping a roof over our heads, finishing her doctorate and making a living as a single mother with four kids to get through college. She never used her degree and continued to teach 5th grade. (I will have to share a blog with you later about her dissertation and experiments with those 5th graders!)

Once she went back on the road with Al in the 1970s, she returned to swimming. She didn’t play tennis well enough to enjoy playing with him, which he did religiously every morning, so he would drop her at a nearby pool and pick her up after they had each finished their exercises.

These community and YMCA pools always have Masters Swimming coaches on the look-out for good competitive swimmers. When they clocked Mom, they were agog. Even at 60 and above, she could out-swim most of the competition. They had soon talked her into swimming for the Senior Games. (They aren’t supposed to use the term Senior Olympics since that is a copyrighted name).

Mom wasn’t really interested in competing, but she succumbed to the begging coaches who wanted swimmers for their state teams. The problem was husband Al. He never stayed anywhere longer than two months. Since she had to compete in and for a particular state, it took a little extra effort to remain in Florida long enough to qualify.

I don’t remember off-hand how many times she competed in the Senior Games. I do remember the one in Louisville, Kentucky where all of us kids showed up to cheer her on. She won seven gold medals in her own 80+ age group, beating competitors all the way down to those in their 60s. The medals eventually were handed down to her grandchildren.

So, today, since it’s always a good time for renewing resolutions, and inspired by her example,  I have printed off Muller’s “My System” booklet,  strapped on my Fitbit, and will take the dogs for a walk, even if it is in the 20s. Maybe I’ll finish the walk on hubby’s new treadmill that has yet to see any movement.

So here is to lessons learned from Elderly Mothers on exercising. Thanks Mom.

Elderly Mothers , , , , , , , , ,
About Caroline Castillo Crimm
Retired Professor Emeritus from Sam Houston State University, interested in writing novels and speaking about topics such as the history of Latin American. Would like to share the AMAZING world of the 18th century in Northern New Spain, that's Spanish Texas and Mexico!
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