Toni LeClercq, 66, started swimming on Lake Washington at age 6, and by age 11 she set her first national record. By age 13, she was a regular competitor, with the 100-meter butterfly being her specialty, and an All-American swimmer.
Her sister, Sue Dills, 69, also has a penchant for the water. “I set my first world record when I was 50. It was for the 800-meter freestyle and the 400-meter [individual medley],” Dills says. LeClercq interjects to say of her sister what Dills is too humble to say: “She’s held pretty much every national record you can think of.”
Their friend, training partner and fellow team member, Sally Dillon, 67, has similar stories, recalling being part of a “hot relay team” in ’73 and ’74 that set multiple national records. Even earlier, in her age grouper days, she swam in the Junior Olympics, winning four events.
As each of these swimmers tells her history with the sport, more and more of these types of stories pop up as they are reminded of records and elite competitions they had completely forgotten. It soon becomes impossible to calculate the actual number of records collectively held by these women who grew up swimming in an era where goggles didn’t exist, bathing caps were frequently worn and women’s swimming programs were overlooked. Now, they all swim together for the Bellevue chapter of the Puget Sound Masters Swimming program, a division of the U.S. Masters Swimming organization.
But no matter how impressive it sounds, believe it or not, the number of records isn’t important to the women (“Records are meant to be broken,” Dills says.), and they never even thought of tallying them up. And maybe that’s because maintaining fitness and health is their ultimate finish line. If a record is broken, it’s a bonus.
Earlier this year, swimming together on a relay team, the three women smashed not one but two national records. The first was in January when they set a record in the Women’s 65+ U.S. Masters Swimming National One Hour Postal Swim. Each of them swam for a full hour, for a combined 11,475 yards.
Their most recent record was in the Women’s 65+ 200 yard Freestyle Relay, which they set along with a fourth swimmer from Bainbridge Aquatic Masters at Spring Nationals in Santa Clara. Their time was 2:11.49, breaking the previous record (held by a different relay that Dills and Dillon were part of) by nearly five seconds, a noteworthy amount of time. So to say the water has been a significant part of their lives is an understatement.
However, at different points in their swimming careers, all the women have spent time without it. LeClercq stopped in her late teens to pursue ski racing, and eventually triathlons and other endurance sports. She returned just seven years ago at age 59 and was astounded that she soon began placing in the three top spots at meets. She has continued to attend nationals in different areas of the country, and she is heading to Maryland this August to compete in the U.S. Masters Swimming Long Course Nationals.
“It’s never easy; it’s a hard sport,” LeClercq says. “But I love the achievement of working hard and being strong and going after your goals at any age. I think that’s really healthy.”
Dills, like LeClercq, swam competitively as a young child, achieving All-American status, but eventually took some time away after high school. She returned at age 40 to swim with the Bellevue Club Masters and has been consistent ever since.
“I enjoy the friendships and working hard toward my goals,” Dills says. “I don’t swim just to break records, but if I’m in a race, I’m going to go as hard as I can.”
As for Dillon, she dropped out of age group swimming at age 16 but continued to compete in high school. She says that women’s teams weren’t taken nearly as seriously as men’s teams in college; there were few opportunities and no scholarships. But, she continued to swim and competed for a junior college in California. She took a three-year break to get married and have children, but she couldn’t stay away for too long, joining a team again when she returned to college to complete her degree.
In the years after, she also became very involved in the national Masters Swimming organization (which currently has over 60,000 swimmers nationwide), eventually becoming a key supporter of many West Coast chapters. “Masters Swimming is an opportunity to become a better swimmer, become more fit, be more efficient, if you like the challenge of working hard,” Dillon says.
She further explains that while she is out for a bit of redemption (“I really had a bad feeling after quitting age group competition in ’62. I turned around and watched girls I had been swimming against go to the Olympics. It hurt my feelings.”), not all of those in the Masters Swimming program choose to compete in meets.
“Competing isn’t the main thing; it is for us because that’s what we like to do, but only about 20 to 25 of the swimmers in the Masters program compete in meets,” LeClercq says. “It’s more about being motivated, talking with people, laughing, having fun; it’s for everybody, not just competitors. Everyone just has to have a passion that they want to be there. The world will open up to them. Of course having a place like the Bellevue Club to train is pretty nice.”
All of the women echo that sentiment and say the camaraderie, the extensive list of mental and physical health benefits, and the sheer love for the water keep them swimming more than fleeting records, although they aren’t going to stop setting them any time soon.
The Coaching Equation
All three of the women credit much of their success to the coaching staff at the Bellevue Club. Here are just a few of the familiar faces they see on the deck.
Growing up, Mike McIntyre played a bevy of sports, including golf, rowing and football, but it was swimming that led him to compete for a spot on the ’72 Olympic team. After missing the team by just one place and having a successful swimming career at the University of Washington, he then set his eyes on making the ’76 team and began training in Long Beach, California with elite coaches.
Unfortunately, a car accident broke his ribs 12 weeks before the trial, and the injury prohibited him from making the team. “You can’t compete with cracked ribs,” he says. “Yeah, I was upset. I was pretty upset, but it is what it is.” That’s when McIntyre walked away from swimming. But like many swimmers, the calling was too strong, and within six or seven years, he says he was back in the water working out and coaching.
From then on, he’s both coached and competed in the Masters Swimming program, and he came to coach at the Bellevue Club last October. He says he enjoys helping athletes of all levels, whether they are breaking national records like LeClercq, Dills and Dillon, or just there for a tough workout. “We have all different types: fast, medium, medium-slow and slow; we can accommodate anybody.” In 2012, McIntyre was inducted into the Pacific Northwest Swimming Hall of Fame.
“I can teach someone how to swim in a grocery store,” Coach Karen Dugan says with a laugh. “I’ve been doing this so long it’s just second nature.” Dugan was a competitive swimmer from early childhood all the way through college at University of Puget Sound—and has been teaching others to swim for almost as long. “I loved teaching swimming, and I started teaching at a very young age. I came [to the Bellevue Club] because I knew it was the best club around,” she says. Since she was 23, Dugan has been involved with the swimming program in some capacity. She also met her husband at the Club, made best friends with other coaches and athletes, and found a way to keep the sport in her life.
She says one of her favorite parts of the job is helping people succeed at all ages. “It’s really fun to see 20-year-olds up to 95-year-olds, and you see these bodies aging, some practically fall over into the water,” she says. “But they don’t care; they just want a goal to achieve.” Dugan says that goal can be to simply make it through a practice or compete at the highest competitive levels. “Most people tell me they are not in good enough shape. But you come here to get in shape. Stay 15 minutes, stay 20 minutes, whatever you want to do; we’re here for you. I don’t make anybody feel uncomfortable. I only yell at people I know.”
For more information, please pick up a Masters Swimming brochure, call 425-688-3223 or visit bellevueclub.com/aquatics.
Not to brag, but…
Throughout the years, McIntyre has amassed an impressive list of accolades:
12 Time All -American 1971-1975
Olympic Trials Finalist 1972
100M Backstroke National Champion 1972
100M Backstroke National Champion Member ‘73-‘75 Relays
World Rankings ’72-‘75, 100M Backstroke
USA National Team Member 1974 to South American International Olympics
USA National Team Member 1975 to European Championship Circuit
USA National Team Member 1976 to Soviet Russian Nationals
Masters Swimming World Top Ten Times (many divisions) 1988-present