RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Swimmer Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen, 44, has set 146 world records in various age groups.
Swimming against the tides
A record-setting 44-year-old swimmer gives and gains inspiration at youth competitions
FOR MOST people, getting older means slowing down. But 44-year-old Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen is an exception.
She has set 147 masters swimming world records in every distance from 100 yards to 5 kilometers. Forty-six of those records -- in multiple strokes and age categories -- are still current. In 2004 she was named World Masters Swimmer of the Year, and in 1988 she was the oldest swimmer to hold a Division II NCAA record.
To challenge herself, the Big Island resident trains with the Kona Dolphins -- all fast, young kids -- and enters the open division of any USA Swimming meet she can find.
She's not alone.
Pipes-Neilsen will join about 560 entrants at the 58th annual Keo Nakama Invitational Swim Meet today through Sunday at the Central Oahu Regional Park Aquatics Center. The majority of the swimmers are youngsters, but 19 are over the age of 20 and five are 34 or older.
"It's an opportunity to race, to get off the blocks and see where I'm at in my training," said Pipes-Neilsen, who is preparing for the FINA World Masters Championships at Stanford University in August.
The meet honors legendary swimmer and coach Keo Nakama, now 85, the first person to swim solo across the Kaiwi Channel. His is the largest invitational in the state and has attracted swimmers from the mainland, Japan and Guam. It provides better competition for the likes of Pipes-Neilsen and former local star Nadine Takai Day, who flew in from Illinois to visit her family and race.
"If my schedule permitted it, I would probably do more (kids' meets)," said Day, 36, who still holds many Hawaii state records. "I enjoy swimming with the kids. When I come home ... and they see my name in the record books, I hope it makes them train harder."
Not just anyone can enter these events, however. Many meets with an open division, like the Keo Nakama Invitational, require qualifying times.
"I think it's great," said Keo Nakama meet director Keith Arakaki. "When the kids see older guys competing at their speed, they think, 'That could be me.' It's a real positive thing."
Now that a 40-year-old woman (Susan Von der Lippe) has qualified for the Olympic trials and the 40-to-44 age category is proving to be the deepest and most competitive in masters swimming, the trend is not about to wane.
EVEN SO, recapturing the strength and speed of youth is never easy. Pipes-Neilsen admitted that she did not reach her potential as a young athlete, despite starting her competitive swimming career at age 6 with superior coaching from Olympic gold medalist Mike Troy. Inconsistent attendance led to a solid break in her 20s, when she "made some bad choices and fell into a bad lifestyle."
But she found her way back to the water and her talent at the age of 31: "Swimming helped me regain my health and regain my confidence and rekindle my passion for everything -- for life."
Her current regimen includes 12 workouts per week; five of those involve swimming 5,000 yards. Yoga, running or weight training complete her program.
"I'm a faster masters swimmer than I was a kid swimmer, but that's only because I apply myself now," she said.
Veteran coach Joe Lileikis said the opportunity to compete beyond the limited number of masters meets available is a good one for top athletes.
"I think the USA Swimming structure has an open door that allows older swimmers to compete, so the masters swimmers might as well take advantage of it," he said. "I think it's great because it allows the kids to see that swimming is a lifelong sport. This could be a renaissance."
But it's nothing new for the Pipes-Neilsen family. Karlyn and her husband, Eric Neilsen, just released a stroke technique DVD, and they travel the world offering swim clinics and private coaching with their company, Aquatic Edge. Karlyn's 72-year-old mother, Adrienne Pipes, regularly competes in 5-mile open-water competitions and stays busy teaching swimming and water aerobics in Kona.
"I don't feel any different from the teenage girls I swim with -- until I look in the mirror!" laughed Pipes-Neilsen. "But I'm working just as hard as they are. I'm trying to improve. I want the best times.
"I am the athlete that I am because of the kids. I hope that by example, I'm showing them that they can participate in the sport for as long as they want."