April 01, 2022 4 min read
By Ray Glier
DeEtte Sauer, 80, is an alcoholic. She smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. She was overweight. Her arteries were filled with sludge. DeEtte Sauer should have broke DeEtte Sauer years ago.
Now look at her.
Sauer is swimming for medals in the same pool as former U.S. Olympians. She had the fastest time in eight events in the U.S. for her age group in 2021.
Friday, she received word she is No. 1 in the world in the 200 meter butterfly.
How does that happen?
“It’s about being intentional with your life and making really good, hard decisions,” Sauer said. “It’s visualizing what you want your senior years to look like. Do you want them to look like you are sitting in a chair on a porch, and doing nothing else, or do you see yourself active and moving and engaged and purposeful?
“Swimming is the key to so much of that. It gives me so much energy and vitality.”
In all these Geezer Jock stories, I try and find out one thing above all others:
What is the lighthouse for these people? What gets them to shore?
DeEtte has lighthouses scattered along the shore.
When she was 39, Sauer was a tycoon of Happy Hour. Then a friend drank himself into oblivion, dead from alcohol-poisoning. Sauer and her husband, George, were rattled.
DeEtte worked in broadcasting sales in Houston and earned double what George earned, and he was an attorney. They rolled in the high-time society during the Houston oil boom times.
They made a vow to each other, as if it was a second wedding ceremony. It was 1979.
“We took a vow, the two of us together, and we said we will never spend another dime on alcohol because of how it has destroyed so many people around us.”
A year later, one of their three daughters, who was 18, died in a car accident. “If we hadn’t quit drinking a year earlier, we never would have after that tragedy,” Sauer said, her voice more somber.
She came from a family of alcoholics in Baton Rouge, La. When she called her mother to tell her she quit drinking, her mother was stunned. “You did what?” Booze was a family heritage.
DeEtte replaced one disorder with another. Sauer smuggled in gluttony to help replace the booze. She started to bake and eat. She gained 100 pounds over seven years.
“I just became compulsive about food because I had eliminated the other compulsive component in my life, the alcohol,” Sauer said.
DeEtte fought back again. She started to exercise and eat better. It took her a year to lose 100 pounds, but she did it.
She went to the University of Houston and got certified in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling, not to practice professionally, but to use the information for her and George and their friends, and anybody else who needed a kick in the pants.
Still, it didn’t remedy the bottlenecked arteries. At a medical workup when she was 58, Sauer was told she had some blockages. There was no surgery, just a regimen of statins, she said.
Then, she did something more useful and transformative. She hopped in the pool. It was August 15, 1999.
What a calamity that started out to be.
There had been a call for “warm bodies” to start a Masters swim team. Her tryout lasted less than a minute.
Sauer swam halfway across the pool and stopped, out of breath. She was dog-paddling and thrashing about in the water with all the technique of a fish flopping on dry land.
“That’s it, bad idea,” she said to herself. “Get me out of this pool. This is embarrassing. I don’t even know what made me think that I could possibly do this.”
“I can’t do this,” she called out to the coach.
“Shut your mouth! Keep going,” boomed the voice from the pool deck. That was 22-year old Stacey VanHorn, a college swimmer and the coach.
“I can teach you,” she said to Sauer in a calmer moment later. “You can do this.”
They are still friends today, 23 years later. VanHorn has been battling breast cancer and the dynamic Sauer has turned into one of the rocks for a young mother.
Sauer wakes at 4:20 a.m. six times a week and swims at least two miles. It would take something extraordinary to keep her from that regimen because of her discipline.
Here is one of the most powerful moments in the interview with DeEtte.
“In Birmingham at the National Senior Games (2017), I won my first gold medal. I never, ever thought it was possible because of all I had done to my body. I put my head under water in the pool and cried.”
When she got out of the pool, a couple, professors at the University of Alabama were waiting for her. They had seen a TV interview of Sauer when they were 58 years old, which was the same age Sauer dedicated herself to swimming. They turned themselves around physically after watching the interview, the couple told DeEtte. Their lives changed. Then DeEtte cried some more.
Sauer was now an evangelist. From looking for a lighthouse to becoming a lighthouse.
“Swimming supplies everything that is recommended by all the experts for healthy, active senior years,” Sauer said. “It gives you the socialization. It gives you the fitness. I’ve got friends that are like brothers and sisters and they’re 15-20 years younger than me.”
There is a truth here: DeEtte will not stop until she is stopped…by DeEtte.
Thank you for being a distraction this week, DeEtte, and here, have the last word in this story.
“For me, it was understanding how important discipline was in my life. I lived a completely undisciplined life and it led me into a lot of terrible things. I mean, in every part of my life, it caused problems. And so for me, as compulsive as I was doing, I had to embrace discipline.
“Unfortunately, in America, we think of discipline as a punishment. But discipline for me was freedom. I live my life within a plan, and adhere to that plan and, oh my gosh!, it just makes my life wonderful.”
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