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Behind the story: Learning about swimming and living a little from ‘Mighty Mo’

She’s a swimming champion at 97

MESA, ARZ April 26, 2019: Master swimmer Maurine Kornfeld, 97, warming up before her event at the USMS Spring National Championship at Kino Aquatic Center in Mesa, Arz April 27, 2019.” She is swimming in the crowded 65+ warm up lane at the meet. Addressing nearly 2,000 swimmers and spectators roasting in 102-degree heat, the P.A. announcer called Kornfeld’s exploits in the pool “titanic.” Head referee Teri White deemed Kornfeld, simply, “the star of the meet.” (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The woman in the hot tub had so many charms, she could have had me at “hello.”

That hokey old movie line aside, Maurine Kornfeld actually had me at “dyspeptic.”

That’s the 25-cent word Kornfeld dropped one day to describe a fellow Rose Bowl Aquatic Center swimmer who failed to grasp the simple rules of lane etiquette. And who was surly about his misbehavior, to boot.

Kornfeld did not like it one bit. “He IS a rather dyspeptic fellow,” she said, with a smile that mixed whimsy and ire. “Isn’t he?” I had been thinking the offending swimmer was merely rude. But I loved that my fellow swimmer had found the more perfect adjective.

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She’s 97 and a swimming champion, breaking one world record after another »

Over many conversations that would follow, I would learn many things: That “Mo” Kornfeld had arrived from Montana decades earlier. That an older brother had been the first to come to California. That she had been a social worker. That she loved opera and politics. And that wicked vocabulary would rear its head from time to time, the detritus (a word she favored) of a University of Chicago education and a lifelong love of reading.

Soon, I learned that this phenomenal wit of the waters was also a star performer on the Rose Bowl Masters Swim team. It became clear that the story had to be told.

Sure enough, I learned of Maurine’s kindness and thoughtful friendships. Meghan O’Donnell told me how Mo repeatedly checked on her in the months after her boyfriend’s twin brother died suddenly. Amy Parker described how Kornfeld thoughtfully put her and another swimmer — both of whom were adopted — together to share their common experiences. Another swim pal, Scott Blois, told how he accompanied Mo to concerts and the opera and how she preferred avant garde over yet another “La Boheme.”

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“There is a fearlessness about people like her,” Blois said.

Maurine’s age, 97, only mattered during competitions, because masters swimmers compete with those in their five-year age ranges. And when it comes to 95- to 99-year-olds in the pool, Mo is the best of the best.

One might think writing about an older subject and one who is abundantly admired would be a cinch. But Kornfeld was not the easiest subject, constantly turning the conversation back to me, the reporter, or to the news of the day, or to her “splendid” trio of coaches at the Rose Bowl pool — Chad Durieux, Andrew Lum and Lauren Turner.

When I first told Kornfeld a few months ago that The Times wanted to publish a Column One on her, she called it “a terrible waste of newsprint.” Later, after I’d spent weeks speaking to her and her friends, she insisted she was just a “chlorinated curmudgeon.” Her story would inspire people, I assured her.

In March, I told Mo I would attend a swim meet at Cal Tech in Pasadena where she would be swimming. I wanted to see how she performed and, more important, how she fit into the competitive swimming world. She told me that what I really needed to do was to swim in the meet, not just write about it.

There we were, floating in the Rose Bowl pool, the veteran of many championships trying to encourage the 50-something rookie to give it a go at the Cal Tech Pentathlon. I told Mo in a stage whisper: “Don’t tell the coaches, but I have never been in a meet…. Besides, I will never be as fast as those guys who swam in college.”

“Oh, come on, it’s FUN!” Maurine insisted. I continued to insist that I was too slow. “Oh, come on!” she harrumphed (but with a smile). “They aren’t going to put the results on your tombstone!”

A few days later, I was on the starting blocks for the first of five events. I wouldn’t come close to placing in any of them. But I would not soon forget that day, among my people, the swimming people, and swimming as a teammate of the one they like to call “the Mighty Mo.”

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