Sounds impressive doesn’t it? Begun in 1985, The World Masters Games happens every four years and you have to be over thirty to compete. In the case of swimming you can be 25. This year, in Auckland there are 27,000 competitors, twenty nine sports and 100 countries involved. You might wonder what happens to ex Olympians and the answer is that when they are old enough or retire from coaching, they become master. We’re rubbing shoulders with runner Peter Snell, doing table tennis, and Rebecca Perrott, still swimming, winning medals and breaking records in her age group.
I’m the team captain for Team Auckland Masters Swimmers, one of two LGBT clubs in New Zealand and I’ve persuaded seven others to enter the games.
Day one – Friday
I’m staying with team-mate Ed in Freeman’s Bay/ Ponsonby, so it’s only a fifteen minute drive over the bridge and up the motorway to the two year-old Sir Own Glen National Aquatics centre, adjacent to the AUT Millennium pool which has been taken over for warm-ups. I’m the only one from TAMS doing the 800 metres freestyle and this is the only event scheduled for toady.
There are 12 women’s heats and 13 for the men. It’s a bit nerve-wracking sussing out how everything works and as I’ve arrived too early, I sit and watch the women race. I manage to catch Rebecca Perrott’s heat. She’s perfect. The Canadian in the next lane starts fast and Rebecca is a comfortable third at the first turn. She gets faster and several lengths later has left the Canadian in the proverbial dust. It’s fantastic to watch.
I’m trying to time my warm-up with checking in for my heat. Marshalling is in a heated tent out the front of the pool and the woman in charge says come back at 2:00pm. I’ve probably done too much of a warm-up as I’m now a bit hungry. Reporting in for heat five, I find that heat two is still running. New Zealand Masters stalwarts, Fritz Bohn (85) – who always does backstroke and Sydney Salek (87) are swimming in this heat, so I know it’s going to take a long time. As I wait, I’m sitting next to a Kiwi chap in my age group. There’s a recognition of age between swimmers as there are no secrets. Our ages are all printed on the heat sheets. We chat – he’s from South Auckland and is worried that the delay will inconvenience his wife.
‘This is what keeps us alive,’ I say.
He agrees. ‘I’ve had a bye-pass – got the scar down my front.’
I tell him about my first UK Nationals – seeing all the old people parading their bypass scars. He’s also worried that he’s spending too much time swimming and not being with his wife.
‘Tell her she’s lucky to have you alive,’ I advise.
It becomes clear the at the 82 year-old Indian chap in lane one is going to take even longer. He’s reckoned on thirty-nine minutes but he’s doing a very slow breast stroke with almost no kick and eventually finishes after 59 minutes. By the time we get to my heat, the benefits of the warm-up are wearing off and I’m running low on fuel. It’s a tough race and I quickly realise that the guy in the next lane is faster than the time he’s entered. I had hoped to shadow him but he speeds ahead after the second length. Still my time is about right for me all things considered. It’s just as well that I’ve brought a bag of fruit and nuts so I wash them down with water on the long drive back through heavy Friday afternoon traffic.
There’s no time to stop and rest at Ed’s place as we have to make our way by bus, train and foot to Eden Park – the iconic New Zealand rugby stadium, for the Official opening of the games. Amazingly, the trains are well organised; stilt walkers greet us and volunteers with signs point us in the direction of our designated entrance. It’s huge buzz as we carry the TAMS banner through the streets of Mount Eden, gathering team mates as we go. There’s time to grab a Thai Green Chilli and rice for dinner and find a central place to sit with the other swimmers from around the world. Our friends from the Waitakare team are sitting nearby looking great in their new black and green club uniforms. Further down there is a group of colourfully attired Lithuanians. Earlier I spotted and Iranian team of some sort (no travel ban here) plus Russians, Poles and loads of Canadians. The New Zealand Maori Quartet are in fine voice to warm us up and the show is compared by Ex netball player and now sports commentator, Jenny-May Coffin. There’s lots of smoke being wafted over the rugby pitch and each seat has a white wrist band attached, containing batteries and electronics, which we have to put
on for later in the show. It’s made in China. There’s a fantastic Maori welcome from Te Waka Huia and a magical cloud effect from the smoke is created with lasers, representing Aotearoa – the land of the long white cloud. It’s all a bit dark and gloomy, a bit like primordial forest and the Maori warriors doing their stuff get rather lost. When our wrist bands light up in sequence it all gets exciting. Then of course there are the inevitable welcome speeches from the games President, the Prime Minister, the Mayor of Auckland and the chief sponsor – a real estate agent.
Then there’s more music as we, sport by sport come down to the Rugby pitch and parade around in semi darkness. Swimming is to follow Golf but when we get down on the field, there is no sign of the Swimming banner, so we end up following Golf. This of course is a clever way to get us all out of the stadium in an orderly fashion where there are move volunteers holding up gigantic arrows pointing the way to buses and trains. It’s mercifully shorter than the
Olympic ceremony and we’re grateful to Auckland Transport for putting on extra trains into town. Great hilarity ensues in the crowded carriage, led by a large Australian bloke, looking for his mate Trevor who was supposed to be somewhere else on the train. In the end he got of alone at the same stop as us, so we will never know if Trevor was real or imaginary.
Day Two Saturday
It’s another tough race today; the 200 metre Individual Medley for Me and team-mate Ross. My warm-up timing is better today but I’m in an ‘age-group’ heat. They put the top fastest in each age-group in a heat so as I’m in lane 9 this means that I am in the top ten of the 65-69 year-olds, I’m also the slowest. We’re sitting in the heated marshaling tent when it becomes apparent that three guys have not turned up. Two of them (from Russia) are the fastest seeds and there’s also no one in lane 8 next to me. I’ll be automatically promoted to 7th in the world so I decide to concentrate on style and just getting through the race. For me 50m butterfly is exhausting – it’s only the fact that I have to get to the other end that keeps me going – so there’s no point rushing it. The second length, backstroke should be my best, but I always spend it recovering from the butterfly. I’m none to keen on breaststroke but am getting better, so it’s not until the last lap of freestyle that I really get going. I’m pleased – only a few seconds away from my predicted time.
Now, as Team Captain, I’m there to wave the banner, cheer and encourage everyone else. Ross is pleased with his 200IM time and we go across the road together to warm-down. It’s good to get rid of the build-up of lactic acid in the muscles. Debs Hanley has her Masters registration with us but lives in Masterton. She’s also doing the 200 IM. She has a very stylish and sedate butterfly stroke. Elizabeth is next up with 100m Breaststroke and is close to her seed time. Ed is also doing 100m breaststroke and is very nervous. He has a little wobble on the starting blocks between ‘take your marks’ and the gun. He then dives at a funny angle and looses his goggles, proceeding to swim the race with them around his neck. We later find out that he’s been disqualified – presumably for his wobble on the block. It’s a shame but he later dines out on this story to all his friends.
Now we only have the Mixed Medley relay to go and anxiously await Jenny’s arrival. The team’s combined age is 238 years – only two years away from the next age group – so we are at a bit of a disadvantage even with young Ross making up time on the last lap with a fast freestyle. We are not last though – 20th out of 22 in the 200 years age-group and swimming four seconds faster that predicted. Ed also redeemed himself swimming the breaststroke section with no wobble or loss of goggles.
In the evening we host a happy hour at Shanghai Lil’s in Karangahape Road for any LGBT athletes in the games.