She just won 3 gold medals for her swimming and she’s only 73

The competitive swimmer Daniela Barnea, 73, at the Avery Aquatic Center in Stanford, Calif. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

DANIELA Barnea, who is 73, typically swims for up to an hour and a half, seven days a week. At her age, that kind of workout, during which she covers nearly 2 miles, is noteworthy.

Even more so is the fact that Barnea, who lives in Palo Alto, California, is a record-breaking swimmer and senior athlete who competes in sanctioned races for her age group in events around the world.

At the 2017 US Masters Swimming Spring Nationals, in Riverside, California, she won three gold medals in the women’s 70- to 74-year-old age group. These included the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststroke finals and the 200-yard individual medley finals.

Hundreds of thousands of senior athletes like Barnea compete regularly in athletic events throughout the world, including the National Senior Games Association, Masters Swimming and USA Track and Field Masters programs. Races are divided into five-year age increments starting at age 35 and ending at 100 to 104. Generally, the athletes range in age from 50 to 100.

A recent documentary, Impossible Dreamers, produced by Eric Goldfarb and Eric Howell through Better World Film Group, follows senior athletes who are amateurs as they train for competition. In addition to Barnea, the 75-minute film (which can be viewed on Netflix and Amazon) spotlights a 91-year-old tennis player, octogenarian racewalkers and septuagenarian sprinters, weightlifters and boxers.

Barnea is among the youngest featured in the movie. Donald Cheek, known as Doc, a resident of Clovis, California, is an international gold medal Masters sprinter at 87. Cheek repeatedly wins in the 85-to-89 division, competing in the 50-, 100-, 200- and 400-meter events. In October in the Huntsman World Senior Games in Saint George, Utah, he set the Games’ record for 100 meters at 17.38.

Gary Player, the 81-year-old retired professional golfer, also appears in the movie, to offer fitness tips in a 20-minute boot camp workout included in the documentary. That instruction is geared toward amateur athletes of all ages who yearn to stay active and, perhaps, to compete.

Barnea’s latest athletic challenge is the 17th Fina World Masters Championships in Budapest this month. To prepare, she swims double workouts and hits the gym three or four times a week.

“I don’t want to be another Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps,” Barnea said. “I just want to be first.”

She schedules her workouts around the time she spends with her three grandchildren and her part-time job as a foreign-language tutor for the Palo Alto Unified School District.

It’s “kind of boring swimming back and forth, back and forth, but when you have a goal, it’s not,” Barnea said. “It’s like meditation to me. It’s very peaceful. There is something very soothing about being surrounded by water.”

For many older people, though, exercising can be a challenge. That’s why the producers of Impossible Dreamers decided to give viewers workout tips.

“We didn’t want viewers to feel inspired by the film and then go back to their regular habits the next day,” said Eric Goldfarb, the filmmaker. “We caught up with several of the athletes after the film’s production to get their demonstrations on safe exercises for older adults; different movements that are simple, maximizing bodily benefits and fun.”   

The message, Goldfarb said, is that “no matter where you are in your life, you do what you can” with regard to fitness.

“You exercise as much as you can without going beyond what your body is able to do,” he said. “The athletes in this film are not superheroes. They are all plagued with injury and real-life circumstance that happens to everybody, and they get through it.”

A few years ago, Barnea had abdominal surgery and needed to rebuild her swimming regimen slowly.

“I could barely swim across the width of pool, but every day I added a few laps, and got stronger and stronger,” she said.

A rotator-cuff injury sustained in a dog-walking mishap, when she was pulled abruptly toward a neighbor’s cat, still makes her wince and prevents her from competing in the butterfly, one of her signature events.

But she keeps on stroking. This year, she will enter an estimated 20 competitions.

“You need to trust yourself, trust the hopes and not the fears, and keep going around the obstacles,” Barnea said.

Ursula M. Staudinger, a life span psychologist and researcher at the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University, said exercising in older age is crucial to physical and mental health.

“Our bodies are made for being used,” she said. “Physical fitness and activity improves brain function. Anyone who is keeping up physical activity — both the aerobic part, which is really important, and the strength and balance and flexibility — is reducing the risks and buffering the decline that is going on.”

For Cheek, the nation’s fastest 100-meter sprinter in his age group, there is “a pride and a mental discipline that carries over into your whole lifestyle,” he said. Consistent exercise, said Cheek, who is a part-time professor of social psychology at California State University, Fresno, allows you to have “a body that can perform for you any time you want.”

Cheek, who grew up in Harlem and earned a PhD from Temple University, has been running track since his days at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx.

“The track represents freedom to me,” he said. “It is a very clear measurement of what I am. It tells me I have guts, character, that I have what it takes.”


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