February 25, 2023 5 min read 3 Comments
Bruce Williams churns through the water with a butterfly. It might be the only time he focuses on himself. Photo by Susan Williams.
*Bruce Williams tells stories, just not his own.
*His daughter nudged him back in the pool 18 years ago.
*He owns or shares three Masters world records.
By Ray Glier
Bruce Williams, a world-record holder in Masters swimming, refuses to turn the camera toward himself for very long. He is not the standard-issue champion, not by a long shot.
You can ask him about his glorious weekend in Little Rock (Jan. 20-22) and what it meant to him to set two world marks (70-74) and tie another, and the conversation steers toward the Vietnam vet he saw swim the backstroke ..with one arm…10 years ago.
You ask Bruce to describe a particular win of his in the Little Rock pool and a moment later he is marveling over the story of the 80-year old swimmers who put back together their college relay team from 60 years earlier.
The scourge of ego cannot find this man. Williams tells another story, before his own, this one about the man he watched swim the 200 breaststroke in Nashville ...with no arms.
Williams is obviously proud of his marks but, he can’t help it, he starts talking about others, like the elite Masters’ swimmers coming up behind him in the 70-74 age class. They will obliterate his records next year, he says.
Humility helps construct a realistic view of who we are. It helps us learn and it helps us seek and embrace change. Bruce shows that humility lets us respect the accomplishments of others. And it does this.
A retired banker who lives in Houston, Williams is on his second career in swimming. He was a formidable high school athlete, then went to Texas Tech where he swam four years for the varsity.
After a 30-year break, Williams came back to the pool when he was 51… and 50 pounds over his college weight.
Now look at him. No float spas or cryotherapy or hyperbaric chambers. Just the pool and dry land strength training. Bruce is the relatable Geezer Jock, the guy who comes back to sport with natural ambition. No “la bomba” the greenies athletes used to pop for races. No regimens of anabolic steroids or, in the old days, the athlete hackers who thought injecting a mix of pig testes would boost performance in their aging bodies.
Williams didn’t need all that. He had Caroline.
There he goes again, crediting someone else.
Caroline, his daughter, was 11 when she expressed an interest in swimming. They made a pact. Dad would get back in the pool, if Caroline got in the pool. That was 18 years ago. His wife, Susan, also jumped on the bandwagon with loads of support.
“I wouldn’t have picked it up as soon as I did without her,” Williams said of Caroline.
It took some courage to get back in the pool because of his weight. When he did get in the water, Bruce was in the far left lane, but this was not the passing lane. This was the slow lane of the pool.
“Kind of scary,” he said.
A year later, the first time he got in the pool for a Masters meet, he had not practiced a start. He had regained the fundamentals of his stroke, but not the fundamentals of the start. He dove and his goggles were knocked down across his face. He swam without seeing the wall.
But a welcome thing happened. He would leave the pool at 7:30 a.m. after workouts and start the drive to work and he felt invigorated, mentally and physically. The weight started to melt off. Williams also started doing more dry land workouts with weights and the strength training added to his sprinter speed in the pool.
Bruce swims for the Rice Masters Swim team and aged up to the 70-74 cohort this year and immediately set the world marks in Little Rock: 50 meter long course backstroke and 50 meter short course backstroke. He tied the 100 meter freestyle short course world mark.
“I was surprised at the backstroke record, that was unexpected,” he said. “I was very happy. I’ve come a long way.”
Williams might have more records, if he didn’t scratch out of so many races. He was supposed to enter five in Little Rock, but entered the three because nerves overwhelmed him. It has happened for 18 years, ever since he got back in the pool.
“The only time I don’t have nerves is when I’m swimming a relay,” he said.
It’s not surprising that Williams is coping with his nerves on the starting block with the help of others. He doesn’t say, “Don’t be a puddin’ Bruce” to get himself jacked up for a race. He said he is merely relying on pep talks from other Masters swimmers who told him they had all been through stage fright before a race.
“If you’re not nervous, you’re not ready,” Williams said.
The remedy, he said, is to enter more events throughout the year and get accustomed to climbing on the starting block.
Two things to note about Bruce’s journey from high school swim star in Texas to Masters swim star in Texas.
When he was a teenager, his father remarked that swimming was so demanding of the kids on the team they were too tired to go out at night and get in trouble. Bruce still chuckles at that.
The other, more recent, benefit of swimming is the discipline. His wife, Susan, has noticed the discipline swimming lathers on her husband. Bruce still loves to eat and has to be mindful of weight gain. When a meet approaches, he gets down to business and discipline kicks in.
There is a third by-product. The sheer fun of being around swimmers.
“I feel like everybody is so serious, like my friends around the neighborhood,” he said. “And one of the things about swimming is the swimmers are just so easygoing. It's just a very relaxed kind of thing."
He might decide not to enter an event because of nerves, but Williams doesn’t mope into a corner. He sits under the tents with other swimmers and regroups, or else doesn’t think much about it.
“I like seeing the different faces of people, everybody's relaxed,” he said. “So yeah, it makes me feel younger. Yeah. Definitely.”
Bruce and Caroline 18 years ago. She pushed dad into the pool.
Geezer Jock is free. I want to drop all my other paid work and make this newsletter 100 percent what I do. Please consider supporting me. I wrote Sports for The New York Times, USA TODAY, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and others, from 1992 to 2020. I've been writing almost 50 years. As always, "If you're not buying what I'm selling, it's my fault not yours."
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