Different Strokes : 83-Year-Old Swimmer, Holder of 7 Masters Records, Trains Like an ‘Animal’ for World Championships

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Times Staff Writer

After swimming more than a mile, she climbed from the pool and lay on its deck. She was shapely in her blue suit, with a firmness not expected in someone 83. Water drops sat on her shoulders. Her gold necklace shined in the sun.

“I usually do 2,000 yards a day,” Katherine Pelton said at the Industry Hills Swim Center, where she practices for the World Masters Swimming Championships in Brisbane, Australia, Oct. 9 to 15.

Efficient at a variety of strokes and with a preference for races of grueling distances, Pelton holds seven masters world records in her 80-84 age division and persists at trying to set more.


“I like to win,” the former schoolteacher said.

Her Son Is a Swimming Coach

Six days a week, Pelton drives to the pool from Whittier for a 1 1/2-hour workout. Disturbing the water barely more than a minnow would, she crosses the 25-yard lanes, alternating the breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and crawl. When she stands, her swim-capped head is barely above the surface--she is not quite 4 feet 10.

Pelton--coaxed by her son, Mike Pelton, now the swimming coach at Mission Viejo High School-- began to swim competitively only 13 years ago. People tend to be surprised that she swims at all.

“She will try anything,” said Janet Royer, coach of the Industry Hills Masters Aquatic Team. “There is a tremendous seriousness to what she is doing.”

Working out a few lanes over from Pelton on a recent afternoon was Lee Arth, 63, former Rio Hondo College swimming coach who began working with Pelton at the college when she was 70.

“She’s a real inspiration,” said Arth, who will also be among the 4,000 swimmers in Brisbane. He mentioned that Pelton had not been feeling well recently. “Sick or not sick,” he said, “she’ll do anything she can to win.”

Although the Atlantic Ocean was her playground as a child at Walvis Bay, South West Africa (now Namibia), Pelton, who came to the United States when she was 16, had never had a swimming lesson until she went to Rio Hondo.


She did know enough to show her son how to swim when he was a baby.

“I thought I was good then, but I wasn’t,” Pelton said in a high-pitched voice. “I didn’t do anything correctly. In Africa I had a book on how to do the breaststroke and I would lie on a round piano stool and practice it.”

Now, though, her favorite stroke is the strength-demanding butterfly, one that few people her age even try. She lifts weights to become better at it.

“It’s harder than the others, it’s a challenge,” she said, adding after a sly smile, “and not many people my age can do it--there’s more chance of winning a tournament . . . although that isn’t a very noble thought.”

Stretched out on the deck, Pelton tapped the concrete with her hands as if a polka were playing in the distance, and said she also enjoys folk dancing and hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Cap Hides Her White Hair

She fussed about having too many wrinkles. But her skin adhered to her 90-pound body with a surprising tightness and her figure bespoke of an athletic past that also included cricket, basketball and field hockey. Her hair, when she pulled off her cap, jumped out in white tangles. Her eyes, barely open against the brightness, were blue-green, not the brilliant color of the pool but the softer, cloudier hue of an ocean.

She talked about how great swimming makes her feel.

“I hope I can swim when I’m 100,” she said, a prospect that made her giggle.

In Pelton’s East Whittier home, her trophies and awards are displayed in the living room and swimming magazines are on a table. Wearing a white top and pink pants that matched her lipstick, she showed her gold medals to a visitor this week and draped T-shirts on the couch.


“What I did (to win) these shirts I’m very proud of,” she said.

One was given to her for swimming across the Columbia River in Oregon. Another she received this summer for finishing the mile-long Seal Beach Rough Water Swim. A third, from the 1987 Southern Pacific Masters Swim Championship at Stanford, proclaims her as an “animal” because she swam the 1,650-meter and 1,000-meter freestyle in one day and the 500-meter freestyle, 400-meter individual medley and 200-meter butterfly over two days.

And she showed a record sheet from U.S. Masters Swimming, an organization whose members compete in age groups starting at 25-29 and continuing into the 90s.

It lists “K. Pelton, USA” after the 50-yard breaststroke (1:20.10), the 100-yard breaststroke (2:57.04), the 50-yard butterfly (1:19.40), 100-yard butterfly (3:09.18), the 200-yard butterfly (7:03.62), the 200-yard individual medley (6:10.22) and the 400-yard medley (13:40.15).

“It sounds like I’m bragging,” said Pelton, whose son coaxed her into the Masters program, “but the older you are the fewer you have to compete against. So if I have no one to swim against, I still get the gold medals. It sounds wonderful, but it’s not quite that wonderful.”.

She wished for more competition, although that thought makes her uneasy. “I always get a little nervous,” she said, not wishing to dwell on the abilities of Vivian Cherriman of England, whom the record sheet showed as her most formidable opponent. “I’m assuming that she’ll be there,” she said, referring to next month’s meet.

A Whittier College graduate who taught second grade for 22 years at Lakeview School in Santa Fe Springs, Pelton lives alone. She has been divorced 40 years.


Her Boyfriend Died

“I used to have a boyfriend but Henry died three years ago,” she said. “He didn’t hike but he would drop me off and pick me up when I went hiking.”

She didn’t think she would be able to afford the trip to Australia, but television evangelist Gene Scott has made it possible. A swimming fan, Scott donated $5,000 after he saw a TV feature on Pelton.

“I’m excited,” Pelton said. “I hope I win something.”

Those who know her expect she will.

On that recent afternoon at the Industry Hills pool, Sonya Bonilla, a fanatical triathlete, was also working out. Young, tall and with golden hair, she presented a striking contrast next to Pelton.

But only in appearance.

“Katie’s an animal,” Bonilla yelled.

Pelton grinned, put on her cap and goggles and jumped back in the water.