August 05, 2023 4 min read
By Ray Glier
Georgia McDaniel is swimming at 76 and winning gold medals—five of them at the 2023 National Senior Games—but before you think she was born into that genetic pool with other freakishly skilled older athletes, know the paradox to her story.
Swimming saved her life and then swimming put her on life's edge.
What’s really cool here is that McDaniel, a Geezer Jock, did not stagnate after being on life’s brink with coronary heart disease. In fact, almost 50 years after helping coach a Pittsburgh-area high school to two swim championships she rebounded from near-calamity and is still showing her athletes how it’s done.
Georgia’s father died of a heart attack, so she would periodically go for a heart scan to see what he left his daughter by way of ill-formed genes. Everything looked fine until she hit a wall, literally and figuratively.
At the 2022 U.S. Masters Swimming national championships, Georgia touched the wall to win a race and felt a pain in her chest.
She got back in the pool for another race. She touched the wall again at the finish and there was the pain again.
“Uh oh,” she said. It seemed she was behind with the rent.
What kept her alive all those years and held off early heart disease, swimming, could have killed her that day in San Antonio. It is still the leading cause of death in the U.S.
McDaniel rushed home to Naperville, Illinois, and had a blockage cleared and two stents plumbed in.
We always say you cannot out-run genes and you can’t out-swim them, either.
But McDaniel wouldn’t be chased out of the pool.
“You love what you're good at and you're good at what you love,” she said. “And so that's why I do it. It keeps me young. It keeps me going and keeps me interested. I've met so many good friends. It's my circle, my peer group. They're all swimmers and it just keeps me going.”
She was back in her Blue Zone, the pool, within a week after surgery. And last month she was in Pittsburgh, her hometown, for her first-ever National Senior Games.
McDaniel is ranked in the top 10 in 2023 in 11 events (short course yards) and in 2022 ranked in the top six in seven events (long course meters) by U.S. Masters Swimming for her age group.She showed the range of her ability at The Senior Games, which is less rigorous than USMS, and she dominated the pool.
McDaniel ruled in Pittsburgh, but that’s not why she was there.
Why she was there is a better story than a haul of medals.
She helped form the first women’s swim team at the University of Pittsburgh in 1964. After graduation with several degrees, Georgia became the girls swim coach at Bethel Park High School. The team won the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Association title in 1974 and 1975 and in this athletically-robust area of the country that was quite a feat.
McDaniel moved to the Chicago-area after the 1975 title. The National Senior Games was her first return to the Trees Pool on the Pitt campus in 48 years. She went back to swim in the nationals, but also to swim with five of the women who were on her high school team.
Georgia, of course, led the way with those five golds and one silver.
Lynn Ahearn Riggs won two silver medals (50 and 100 backstroke) and two bronze medals (200 backstroke and 200 freestyle). Tina Hasselberg Keisling took a gold and two silvers.
“We all looked up to her,” Keisling said. McDaniel's athletes fussed over her all weekend because she was a beacon those 50 years ago
Keisling and Riggs are especially grateful because they earned scholarships to the University of South Carolina as Title IX was cranking up.
The fact McDaniel overcame some fragile angst after the surgery is a great lesson here. The doctor told her to jump right back in. Instead, she waded in. McDaniel was cautious, she said.
“It did make me feel fragile when I went back so I would swim very easy,” McDaniel said. “I told everybody and I'm just gonna take it easy. Then I found out I felt good and then I started to swim faster and then cut it loose.”
Now, she has the attitude to keep churning through blue waters continuing a distinguished Masters career. Ego is no issue.
“There's no getting faster anymore for me, every year I get a little slower,” Georgia said. “But I'm kind of happy if I'm close to what I did last year. Technique has helped a lot. Technique and swimming has changed a lot in the past 50 years. It's a lifetime of swimming and learning as you go.
“You have to look at how old you are. And you're only swimming against people who are your age, you know, and people start getting slow. I guess I get slower, slower than everybody else.”
Georgia (third from left) and some of the women she coached to two high school championships almost 50 years ago. They were all in Pittsburgh for the National Senior Games where their coach showed them how it is done with five gold medals.
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