From left, Greenbelt Sharks swimmers Kathy Labukas, Billy Webb, Kendra Keeney, Sandra Bowman, coach Jack Trudeau, Jean Lentz and Jon McElderry at the Princemont League Championship in August of 1959. Kathy was 9 and won 2nd place in freestyle.
Kathy Labukas grew up in Greenbelt and swam with its first swim team, which formed in 1957. The coach, Al Castaldi, had contacted her parents saying he needed a 6-year-old girl to complete the team, which led to her winning many events and becoming one of the top swimmers in the Princemont League that the Greenbelt team competed in – until she aged out at the age of 18.
When she left for college – one that had no swimming pool at all – she put swimming on pause, but after returning to Greenbelt in 1985 she regularly took advantage of its new indoor pool, swimming for fitness, not competition. (Kathy is my next-door neighbor, and seeing her head to the pool early in the morning inspires me to get moving myself.)
Then last year, Kathy started swimming with friends on the DC Water Wizards Senior Swim Team and got the urge to try competing once again. So in September she swam in her first swim meet in 54 years at the DC Senior Games, winning all of the six events in which she competed – among women 70-74 years old.
And last month Kathy competed for Maryland in the National Senior Games in Pittsburgh and says it was quite a surprise to finish in the top 10 in the country in all her events!! Her best achievement was receiving 4th place in the 100 yard backstroke. In a mixed Individual Medley relay (men and women, all in their 70’s) she and her relay members won Gold!
Kathy says that participating in the National Senior Games was “challenging, exhausting, and fun” and she looks forward to qualifying for the next National Senior Games – in Des Moines in 2025.
I know you’ll all join me in a big “You go, girl!!!” to Kathy, from all Greenbelters, all senior swimmers, and anyone even considering returning to a difficult, competitive sport after decades!
Kathy appreciates all the encouragement she’s gotten, from far and near. “My friends have been very supportive of my choice to compete again later in life. Former Greenbelter Mary Anne McDonald Papale, my friend since kindergarten, lives in Pittsburgh and came to video my first event and to cheer me on. And my roommate from the University of Dayton drove two and a half hours from Cleveland to cheer me on.”
Above, Kathy competing in the National Senior Games 100M Individual Medley, finishing 10th place in the nation. The medley requires competing in backstroke, butterfly (in this photo), breaststroke and then freestyle. Digging into my swim team memories from childhood, I know that butterfly is the hardest of all. It’s no wonder we see only the most serious, competitive swimmers doing it at the Greenbelt pool. Kathy with other winners in the 100 yard backstroke, in which she finished 4th in the nation, with other 70-74 year old champs on the podium.
What’s Changed in 54 Years?
I asked Kathy what had changed about competitive swimming in all the years since her high school days. And it’s more than I’d imagined:
“Trying to complete a racing dive with goggles on and keep them on. We didn’t wear goggles in the 1950s and 60s, so this requires new strategies and skills.
“Flip turns now include strong underwater dolphin kicks.
“Swimming strokes have also changed. Many things I was told not to do are now recommended, although with a little tweaking.”
Despite the hurdles, Kathy’s sticking with it. “Swimming with a group is much more motivating than training on your own.” She recommends checking out the many Potomac Valley US Masters swim teams in the area (like Montgomery Ancient Mariners and Terrapin Masters), where you can swim with others and get training from an experienced coach.
Kathy walked in the National Senior Games Parade of Athletes at a Pittsburgh Pirates game.