Champion of an Active Life

Last summer tall and sprightly Russ Witte and sixty other adventurers took part in the Great Ohio River Swim, splashing their way through 900 meters of water bank to bank, swimming from Cincinnati, Ohio to Newport, Kentucky and back.

A nonagenarian, Russ was the oldest of his swimming cohorts that day. Having learned to swim in the Ohio River at camp when he was ten years old, this event marked his first return to open water swimming in eighty years.

After this achievement, Russ packed for a September trip to Alaska with his son and daughter-in-law. Upon his return he made preparations for his annual five-month winter sojourn in Sarasota, Florida, where his active lifestyle of playing in 18-hole golf leagues and lap swimming continues.

Before leaving Cincinnati for warmer weather, in between swimming, golf dates, helping with the Cheviot-Westwood Kiwanis Harvest Home Fair, square dancing, and domino-playing, he dedicated an afternoon to talking about his on-the-go life.

A few years after he retired at age 65, Russ was coaxed by his sons, Jim and Ray, members of the Masters Swim Team, to enter a swim meet at their local Gamble-Nippert YMCA. His competitive nature swung into action, and he began earning gold medals for his swimming feats.

From then on he competed in U.S. Masters Swimming events and in the National Senior Olympics, racking up more medals (in the hundreds) than he can count. In 1988 he entered the World Masters’ Meet in Australia and came in third place in his age group in three breast stroke events. He also swam the breast stroke leg of a medley relay team that set a new world record.

He has lost two wives to cancer. He says he finds “a lot of things annoying about getting old,” including five years ago developing type II diabetes and
having to eliminate all desserts from his diet. Another limitation disturbs him: “When I was a pilot in World War II we took off and landed in the dark without field lights or landing lights,” he recalls. “Now at night I don’t like driving to new places.”

Russ is amazingly fit. In 2005, while swimming in the National Senior Olympics, he joined a study at the medical school in Pittsburgh about activities as they affected bone density. “At almost 90, I was shown to have the bone density of a 30-year old man,” he says. Swimming has even helped alleviate the chronic back problems he suffered for years after leaving the service and has caused his golf handicap to go down five strokes.

Russ’s take on enjoying life is to keep active and give it everything you’ve got. To prepare for future swim meets, he maintains a regular schedule at his condo’s pool, swimming 40 lengths of a 25-yard pool three times a week. In Cincinnati, he belongs to two nine-hole golf leagues, continues to square dance, uses the weight room, and eagerly awaits a shuffleboard court to be installed where he lives.

His garage is stocked with a well-supplied workshop for his frequent fix-it projects. He regularly attends Tuesday Kiwanis meetings and Sunday services at his condo’s chapel.

Being close to his family is of prime importance. This past July when Russ made his Great Ohio River Swim, his sons were by his side for the entire forty-five minutes, swimming at his speed. He relishes traveling with his family, such as last September’s tour of Alaska, and is in regular contact with his two sisters, Maryl and Jane.

“I’ve been very lucky in life,” Russ smiles. “My goal now is to die young as late in life as possible.”

Russ Witte