The following article appeared in the Marin IJ on June 29, 2023. See the article.
Marin swimmer, 80, keeps lapping up accolades
Rich Burns, an 80-year-old San Anselmo resident, swims almost every day at Marin Academy’s competitive pool in San Rafael.
Burns, who was selected as a “swimmer of the year” in 2022 by Pacific Masters Swimming — the adult amateur league that governs most of Northern California — said consistency is key.
“I don’t think of myself as anything special. I don’t think of myself as an icon,” Burns said. “I just show up and swim like everybody else.”
Still, as a longtime member of Tamalpais Aquatic Masters, his club team, Burns is considered a leading steward of Marin aquatics.
“I probably wasn’t as competitive when I was younger. I just wasn’t hardwired that way,” he said. “As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten more competitive. I’ve gotten more cerebral about it.”
Marie McSweeney of San Rafael has coached with Tamalpais Aquatic Masters for more than 40 years. She said Burns would probably say he is a much better swimmer now than when he was a collegiate athlete.
The difference, she said, is that now he seems to enjoy it more because of the goals he is attaining.
“His love of swimming is absolutely infectious and he’s the consummate class act both as a swimmer and as a human being,” McSweeney said. “I think his mission is to share the benefit of masters swimming with everyone.”
Pacific Masters Swimming is one of more than 50 regions in U.S. Masters Swimming, a nonprofit organization. The regions are divided and members compete in age groups of five-year increments.
McSweeney said U.S. Masters Swimming is available to anyone over the age of 18 at almost all skill levels to practice and have coached workouts in a non-professional setting. For some of the more standout athletes, there are competition opportunities.
Chris Ottai, an administrator with Pacific Masters Swimming, said the organization awards “swimmer of the year” honors to a man and a woman based on their points in competitions and whether they break U.S. Masters Swimming national records.
“Rich regularly wins his age group and holds many, many national records,” Ottai said.
Burns said he has been named “swimmer of the year” 10 times, but perhaps his greatest achievement was being inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2010.
“That’s based almost exclusively on points for setting world records,” Burns said.
Burns grew up in Chicago, where he developed an interest in swimming through a friend. At that time, he said, he was a good swimmer, but far from exceptional. Still, he swam at the collegiate level at Indiana University.
“I swam on these phenomenal teams but I was not a particularly great swimmer,” Burns said. “As the story unfolds, after I graduated, I served some time in the military. I went 10 years without being in water.”
It was in Marin that he rediscovered his love for swimming. After moving to San Anselmo, he joined Tamalpais Aquatic Masters and started winning competitions and breaking records. Over time, he rose to the top of the rankings in his age group.
“I’d call it an out-of body-experience,” he said. “That was not my self-image as an athlete.”
Burns competes in all events, but he considers the butterfly, freestyle and backstroke his strongest. He said the breaststroke is the most challenging, though he has set records in individual medley races.
In the latter years of his participation, Burns has turned to stewardship of the team. Burns is president of its board and contributes administrative aid, he said.
His team first swam in a 1920s-era pool in San Rafael operated by Marin Academy with just a few lanes. Last year, Tamalpais Aquatic Masters advocated and raised money for the school’s new aquatic center on Fifth Avenue.
The Tamalpais Aquatic Masters team has about 110 members.
“We felt a real obligation to be a part of this new facility,” Burns said.
Even as an octogenarian, Burns isn’t slowing down in the pool. He conquered bladder cancer in 2014 and has avoided many of the common shoulder injuries that cut short the careers of the twilight swimmers.
He plans to swim until he can’t anymore.
“I can’t see a reason to stop,” he said. “I think it has a lot to do with keeping me healthy.”