Pool Shark

March 24, 2003

You know about FACES IN THE CROWD, right? It's maybe the best
thing we do. It's just people's achievements, simple as that. No
agents, contracts or Hummers. They never fail to astound.

Amber Blotch, 16, won her 1,062nd straight tennis match using a
spatula.

But when I read about an 85-year-old swimmer awhile back, Jim
Eubank of Oceanside, Calif., I knew somebody was yanking our
chain. It wasn't just what the caption said--that he'd broken the
85-to-89-age-group swimming world record in the 800-meter
freestyle by more than 14 seconds and set two other records
besides--it was his picture.

Look at all that hair! Where are all the wrinkles? If he's 85,
why doesn't his neck look like beef jerky? Who's in charge of his
birth certificate? The Dominican Republic?

I called him. "No, I'm not 85," he said.

Ah-ha!

"I'm 86 now."

I didn't buy it. I asked him if it were true that he still had
the world record in the 800 meters. "No," he said.

There you go!

"Now I've got the world records in the 100, 200, 400 and 1,500
too." Tired of my pestering, he finally said, "Come on out, and
I'll take you on!"

Take me on? I'm half his age! I hardly swim, but I knew I could
whip an 86-year-old geezer. So I said, O.K., strap on your
Speedo, Pops.

He kept postponing. Once it was something about a double hernia.
Another time he had to get the battery in his pacemaker replaced.
Hah! Finally, I flew out there, ready to call his bluff. By now,
he was 87. (Cough, cough.)

When I drove up to his North San Diego County ranch, he met me in
the driveway. I hated him immediately. He had this huge shock of
thick, white hair. He looked like Lloyd Bridges at 50. Or Dorian
Gray. I demanded to see a birth certificate.

He let me look at the stuff on his walls while he changed. Here
he was, in 1937, swimming against 1932 Olympic gold medalist
Buster Crabbe. (The paper said he was 22. Checks out.) Here he
was, the same year, standing next to movie swim star Esther
Williams, accepting first-place trophies from the Mile Hile
Championships. Here was an article about him volunteering for a
"special regiment" in 1942, even after being warned that the
chances of surviving the assignment were 10%. Those men formed
one of the first units that would become known as the Navy SEALs.

Turns out this guy performed feats of preposterous courage.
Swimming under Japanese warcraft with nothing more than a knife
in his teeth. Scouting enemy-held beaches. Aquatic guerrilla
tactics. And to think I feel patriotic for taking my hat off for
the national anthem.

After the war he got married and then dived right into the real
estate business. He and his partner were among the first to cut
into and build homes in the Hollywood Hills.

He didn't waste any time getting back into the pool either. This
is a man who has won his age group at the La Jolla Roughwater
Swim in 55 of the last 56 years. The last time, they asked him to
say a few words. "Never smoke, drink or mess with women," he
warned the men, "until I've checked them out first."

Suddenly he was back in the room, in his swim trunks. "Well," he
said. "You ready?"

His chest was massive and the skin over it was so tight, you
could see where the silver-dollar-sized pacemaker rests above his
heart. Hell, you could almost read the serial number. His waist
was 30 inches tops, his legs rippled, his arms toned. "Uh, I
think I'm feeling a double hernia coming on," I said.

He led us out of the gorgeous ranch house he'd built himself,
past the painting of a 60foot boat he'd built himself, to the
three-lane heated lap pool he'd built himself. Somebody has got
to tell Tom Brokaw about this guy.

I knew my only chance was an allout sprint of 50 yards, two
lengths of the pool. His wife of 57 years, Vera, started us.
About 15 yards into it I looked up from my thrashing to see him
watching me, his stroke smooth and splashless.

He beat me by about a length, but he could've beaten me by about
the length of Omaha Beach. He shook my hand and said, "You gave
me a real scare there!"

Right. It would be like Reagan saying to Mondale, "Whoa! You
almost nipped me there at the end!" It had to be the new battery.

Let's toast your victory over a beer, I offered. "Sure," he said.
"Just let me stretch out with a few more laps." He did 70 more--a
mile. Does it every day.

While he swam, it hit me that this is one of the coolest men I'd
ever come across. Heroic. Classy. Brave. Buffed. Wise. Kind.
"What goals could you possibly still have?" I asked him that
night, at one of the 20 restaurants he's developed.

"Well, the next age group is 90-and-above," he said. "So, in a
year or two I'm going to have to start getting in shape again."

Forget FACES IN THE CROWD. Is it too late to give him a cover?

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

I hardly swim, but I knew I could whip an 86-year-old geezer. So
I said, Strap on your Speedo, Pops.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)