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'I just love swimming': 99-year-old sets three world records in single day

Betty Brussel set the records in the 100- to 104-age category at the Commonwealth Pool
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Betty Brussel, 99, dives into the water as she competes at a master's swim meet at Saanich's Commonwealth Pool on Jan. 20, 2024 Photo Linda Stanley Wilson

No one can accuse swimming world-record holder Betty Brussel of doping.

The 99-year-old, who set three world swimming records in the 100- to 104-year age category at the Commonwealth Pool last weekend, is not on any prescription medications.

“I am very healthy,” Brussel said in an interview from her apartment in New Westminster, where she lives independently. “When I do my swim, I am just exhausted and I recover in about 10 minutes and I can go again. I guess I am lucky.”

Brussel shaved almost four minutes off the previous world record for the 400-metre freestyle event, completing the swim in 12 minutes and 50.22 seconds. She set a new record for the 50-metre backstroke, gliding to victory in 1:25:22, then churned her way through the 50-metre breaststroke, setting the record at 1:56:22.

“I just love swimming and I’m competitive. I go for it,” said Brussel. “But if I don’t win and I have a good time, I’m happy, too. It’s not the most important thing for me to win.”

But win she did — setting three world records in a single day. She said she thoroughly enjoyed the Jan. 20 swim meet in Saanich where the records were set. “It felt really good. Everyone was so nice to me, you know.”

Even though she’s a few months shy of 100, Brussel competes in the 100- to 104-year category because swimming uses the birth year of competitors.

Brussel was born on July 28, 1924, in Zaandam, Holland, just north of Amsterdam. She was the second of 12 children.

There was no money for swimming lessons, so she and her siblings taught each other to swim, playing and swimming in the canals when the weather was good. Five of her brothers and three sisters are still alive, she said. Her youngest brother is in his late 70s.

Brussel was married in 1948 at the age of 23. Her husband, Gerrit, was drafted almost immediately to go to Indonesia during its war of independence from the Dutch Empire. When he returned, they started a ­family.

“We had a three-year-old, a one-and-a-half-year-old and a newborn. Two boys and a girl. They all came fast. There was nothing you could do about it. You can’t send them back,” she said, laughing.

“But they are my life. My pride and joy. They are good people and they look after me. They are really good to me.”

The family moved to Canada in 1959, living for 18 years in North Vancouver, where her husband was a lab technician. He was transferred to the U.S. for three years, then retired and the couple settled in Grand Forks.

In the late 1980s, Grand Forks built a four-lane swimming pool, which meant Brussel and her husband could swim all year round. In 1991, at the age of 67, she competed in the B.C. Seniors Games in Coquitlam (now the 55+ BC Games).

“I swam one lane of breaststroke and I didn’t even do it right,” she said.

Undeterred, Brussel went to Castlegar to train one day a week and learned how to dive and turn and do all the strokes. She has competed in every seniors games since. She also competed in world masters swimming in Calgary, Montreal, Reno, Sydney and Budapest.

“I love to be gliding through the water. I’ve had setbacks, too, but I always go back to swimming and honestly, swimming is just my happy place. That’s why I like the longest swim ones. I like the 400-metres. That’s my favourite because you can’t think of anything else because you lose count. So I’m just relaxed and gliding through the water and I love it.”

Brussel paces herself, making sure she doesn’t go out too fast.

“I just ease into it and I get in a rhythm and I always have some left for the last lap — then I sprint. Then I am really tired.”

Brussels can no longer do the butterfly after surgery to repair a tear in her rotator cuff 20 years ago. But she still gets up on the block by herself, although she needs a hand or a shoulder to steady herself because she’s afraid of falling off.

“I still dive. I will do it as long as I can. I still have pretty good times. But if I get too slow, I will quit competing. It’s not fair to other people to have to wait for you. Up until now, I still have a decent time.”

She drives herself to swim practice at the Guildford pool in Surrey twice a week, a 20- to 30-minute drive from her home.

Brussel also competes in team relay events. Her teammates like having her on their side, she said, because it pushes them into an older category.

“I love the people from my swim club, they are so supportive. I am very independent. I cook and look after myself, but they help if I need it,” said Brussel.

Throughout her long, healthy life, her motto has been “Be tolerant. Be kind,” she said.

And it has served her well. “I’m basically a happy person,” she said.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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