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The Tale of the Active Mariner: Swimming for a Longer Life

“Heave Ho! My Lads, Heave Ho! 
It’s a long, long way to go.
It’s a long, long pull with our hatches full,
Braving the wind, braving the sea,
Fighting the treacherous foe.” – “Heave Ho, My Lads”: official song of the U.S. Merchant Marine.

Captain John Hill of the U.S. Merchant Marine has been a YMCA patron since his high school days in Chicago.  This is the 4th YMCA with which he has been associated. He no longer sails, but his friends here have become his honorary crew. He’s proof that swimming is an activity that is important to lifelong fitness, thanks to its low risk of injury, full-body engagement, and joint-friendly cardio. As John says, “I may be the slowest one in the pool, but I just keep going!” You don’t have to be a competitive swimmer to reap the benefits of the water.

John has been on the water a long time, but he wasn’t always a swimmer. He joined the Merchant Marine right out of high school and quickly fell in love with the sea. The Merchant Marine, different from the Navy, is the fleet of ships which carries imports and exports during peacetime and becomes a naval auxiliary during wartime to deliver troops and war materiel. John started sailing during the Vietnam War, and humorously recalls that his first voyage to Vietnam was to deliver not ammo or bombs, but 10,000 tons of beer!

Up until about 2000, he was primarily a runner, whether it be from a base of the Seamen’s Church Institute in lower Manhattan, or the steel decks of some of his ships (where 5 laps was equal to 5 miles).  He has run several triathlons, including 3 Wyckoff Triathlons over 33 ago, as well as 3 full-length marathons, clocking a personal best of 3 hrs 35 mins in 1980.  But the ravages of time left him with too much knee pain to continue running, so 10 years ago he switched exclusively to swimming.

In January 2013, John was diagnosed with renal failure and had to start kidney dialysis 3 times per week, for 4 hours at a time. This didn’t stop him from swimming. In the beginning, the treatment drained his stamina, making it hard for John to do even 1 lap in the pool. Little by little, John regained much of his strength and now swims at least an 1 hour per day, 6 days per week. He says that swimming gives him a such a feeling of wellness. John says “I have great faith in a strong work ethic, so I toughed it out, until now it is no problem doing a hour each workout—my longest workout last year was close to 3 hours.”

He keeps swimming because he hopes to get a transplant this year, and wants to be in the best shape possible when that day comes. Sometimes life can feel like navigating through rough seas, in the fog, with no radar (something John is actually all too familiar with!) He says that his experiences here have been great, because “Y people are a special breed of positive folks,” which buoys his spirits. As a sailor, John is used be being thrown hither, thither and yon through rough waters, not being certain you’ll make it to port. Our pools are a little more tame, but he is thankful all the same that his fellow members, friends (that he calls his “locker room war heroes”) and staff are here to help keep him steady and navigate to shore safely.