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Washed up? No way

At 37, former champion competes in nationals against swimmers half his age

In his mid-30s with a job and two young children, Mike Ross of Shrewsbury had his doubts about going back to competitive swimming. He thought he might be a Bluefish out of water.

''I figured I'd be an oddball in the sport," said the 37-year-old Ross, a member of the Bluefish Swimming Club. ''When I thought about swimming with kids, my first thought was that I'd look foolish."

Ross even imagined how events might unfold: The Attleboro-based club is preparing for an intense competition, he's psyching himself up on the pool deck among the younger swimmers, and someone taps his shoulder. ''Part of me could see someone saying, 'Excuse me, sir, there is a meet going on; could you please step away from the warm-ups?' I just figured I'd be too old."

Yet, when it came time to make a final decision, Ross decided to go back to something he's been practicing since he was 7. He dove in headfirst and became a member of the club. He's happy he did.

Swimming with teenage teammates -- and against teenage competitors -- Ross has found himself regaining the skills he once had as a young swimmer. He's one of four members from the club to qualify for the USA Swimming Championships, which are being held this week in Federal Way, Wash. (between Seattle and Tacoma), where he is scheduled to slice through the water in the 100-meter butterfly, the 100 backstroke, and the 100 freestyle. The average age of swimmers at the competition is 18.

''I'd say it's pretty rare that he's competing, and for someone to swim at Mike's level, it's extremely rare," said Chuck Batchelor, a longtime friend of Ross and head coach of the Bluefish.

While his teammates are thumbing through textbooks to keep up with schoolwork on the trip, Ross is staying abreast of the latest news from the high-technology start-up company for which he works. And while his teammates dial parents and friends on cellphones, Ross is also on the line, except he's making contact with his wife, Kim, and the couple's children, 8-year-old Jordan and 5-year-old Madison.

''Having a family makes it harder to go away," he said. ''It makes me homesick, frankly."

But in some ways, the Bluefish Swimming Club has become Ross's extended family.

''I love Mike; he's one of my favorite people," said Eliza Butts, 17, of Weston, a Bluefish member who is also swimming at this week's USA Championships. ''He almost plays a fatherly role in a way, always talking to people, curious about what's happening in their lives."

Batchelor, the team's coach, said the intersection of generations is best seen on van rides to competitions.

''He has this great sense of humor and, because he and I are so close, he has a lot of dirt and stories about me," said Batchelor, who is 38. ''I'll be driving the van, he'll be in the back with the kids, and I'll be hearing these stories. Thankfully, he's careful not to go too far. It gives him a connection with them."

''It's almost like he's a kid," Butts said. ''He interacts with us and jokes around with us. He makes us feel like teammates."

The tie that binds all the Bluefish, of course, is swimming.

Ross first leapt from the starting block as a youngster growing up in Somers, Conn. He had a successful college career at Princeton, finishing as a captain while swimming on an NCAA championship relay team that also set a national record. He went on to compete in the US Olympic trials in 1988, 1992, and 1996, but never qualified for Olympic competition. He retired in 1996 at the age of 28, focusing more on full-time work and starting a family.

''In many ways, it was disappointing," he said. ''I felt I hadn't reached my potential."

Ross stayed away from swimming for seven years, although it was never far from his mind. Ask his wife, he said, and ''she would say I was pretty depressed about it."

''At that point, I had swum for 20 years competitively and now all of a sudden I didn't have that. It was a bedrock in my life. I defined myself as a swimmer all those years and now what was I? I don't think I had much direction at the time. I wasn't the same old person."

An unexpected turn of events led Ross back to the pool. In 2003, he ruptured a disc in his back. As part of rehabilitation from surgery, doctors advised him to stay off his feet and to use exercises that would strengthen his back muscles. Swimming was ideal.

''Three weeks later, I was in the water, and I just kept swimming."

In 2004, he competed at a national championship for masters-level swimmers and set two world records. The success surprised him -- motivated him, too. He's currently striving for even higher goals, hoping to qualify for the Olympic trials again.

''Each year I question if it's getting more difficult or not, but I still have a pretty positive attitude."

Ross acknowledged that his reentry into the sport wasn't smooth because he ''hadn't kept up with my strength, let my back muscles go to waste, and had no stomach muscles."

Olympic swimming great Mark Spitz tried a similar comeback in 1992 at age 41. Spitz had retired at 22, after competing in the Munich Games. Spitz's bid ended when he did not qualify for the Olympics.

Roger Fielding, an exercise physiologist and professor of nutrition at Tufts University, said Ross's age makes him an underdog against younger elite swimmers.

As athletes age, Fielding said, the speed at which their muscles contract declines. Fast contractions are important for short-duration, high-intensity activities such as sprinting, he said.

But Fielding added that a high-level veteran swimmer like Ross has an advantage over some younger competitors.

''A lot of the patterning and genetic makeup that made them good swimmers initially in their prime, you don't lose that," he said. ''There is a lot to be said for genetic makeup."

Marlene DaCosta, an exercise physiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, doesn't feel that Ross's age is necessarily a detriment. The big difference, she said, is ''the demands on time, when you have a family and children, that can take away from training time. In a situation like that, he has to train smarter because he might not train as frequently as he once had time for."

DaCosta said the only factor that could hinder Ross is how quickly his body recovers after a race or practice.

The Bluefish discovered this the hard way when Ross was asked to swim back-to-back events in a competition.

Ross was scheduled to swim in one race, then another only about seven minutes later. The second race, for which Ross had not had time to recover, was a ''disaster," said Batchelor, the coach.

Ross, who practices each morning at the Boroughs YMCA in Westborough, said he's awed by the new generation of swimmers.

''I'm interested to see some of the guys who come up now -- the Michael Phelpses and Ian Crockers -- compared to when I quit swimming the first time," he said. ''They are so much faster than my contemporaries were. You ask yourself, 'How the heck are these guys doing this?' "

Ross said he enjoys a dual life of swimming and working. He enjoys competing at a high level before trading his swimming gear for 9-to-5 work clothes and switching ''back to regular-guy mode."

Batchelor sometimes wonders how Ross is maintaining such a high level of performance. He appreciates Ross's competitiveness and boldness in sharing a lane with swimmers half his age. Also, Batchelor said that everything Ross does ''sets the tone for the younger kids; they look at how he takes care of himself and that's a huge benefit for them to see that."

Butts remembers her surprise when Ross first joined the Bluefish.

''I was shocked to see how great a shape he was in," she said. ''Most of all, it was really cool to see how far he's come, how much he loves the sport, and how swimming has affected his life."

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