She’s a champion swimmer who didn’t learn to put her face in the water until she reached retirement age. She’s a world record holder, but has only the vaguest notion of her fastest times. She’s a national champion in the backstroke who can tell you about the mechanics of the stroke, but would rather rhapsodize about the heavenly view one gets, swimming with her back to the world, sunny-side up.
Some people are born great, while others have greatness thrust upon them. So they say. Maurine Kornfeld sidled up to greatness in her own sweet time, letting it wash over her, while she paid attention to more important things.
Now the retired social worker, who didn’t swim her first serious lap until just before her 60th birthday, holds 16 age-group world records, 26 U.S. bests and dozens of national championship titles. Recently, at the U.S. Masters Swimming Spring National Championship, the late bloomer from the Hollywood Hills bagged six more titles.
At 97, Mo Kornfeld is the oldest active member of the 64,000-member U.S. Masters Swimming. The menagerie of former high school and college swimmers, onetime Olympians and aquatic latecomers swim for fitness and — if so inclined — in regional, national and international competitions.
Her teammates on Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Masters swim team will regale you with stories of “Mighty Mo” — her ability to navigate two freeways to make workouts, her obliteration of most world records in the 95-99 age group, and the lowdown on the time she humbled a Frenchwoman who dared claim that she would be the dominant nonagenarian at the 2017 World Championships.
“That’s all very nice,” Kornfeld said of the effusive praise. “But, I mean, it’s only swimming. It’s not going to change the course of world events.”
She’s lived by herself most of her life, but is constantly seeking new connections. She relentlessly turns the conversation back to others — their work, their families, their travels. “People who are self-involved miss a lot in life,” she said. “Don’t you think?”
She’s too modest to suggest she will leave some legacy. But poking around her home, she makes a point of showing a candleholder she received in her girlhood, when the Camp Fire Girls promoted her to the highest rank, Torch Bearer.
The Torch Bearer believes the admonition she was given eight decades ago is worth remembering. “That light that has been given to me,” it said, “I desire to be given undimmed to others.”
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