Sunday Conversation with Sally Newell

Septuagenarian embraces open-water swimming

There’s a saying among adult swimmers: The older you are, the faster you were. But at 78, soon to be 79, Sally Newell is still plenty fast. For the past two decades, the Johns Creek resident has been one of the country’s premier breaststrokers in her age division. That’s after taking up competitive swimming while undergoing chemotherapy following breast cancer surgery. In early August, Newell took on a new challenge. She became the oldest person to participate in the Dublin City Liffey Swim in Ireland, one of the most well-known open sea races. We caught up with Newell after she returned home and was back on dry land.

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I have four children and 11 grandchildren and we all speak to each other and like each other. I have always been an active person. As an adult, I have worked around a lot of pools and was a lifeguard. I worked at a daycare once that had an indoor pool and I taught swimming. I also had a paper route and would throw 400 newspapers a day. I have never been embarrassed of any job I have ever had and enjoyed them all.

Q: What do you like about swimming?

A: Your mind can kind of wander and you can solve lots of problems.

Q: When did you start swimming competitively?

A: About 25 years ago when I was recovering from breast cancer. I was getting my lifeguarding recertification when I ran into this woman 25 years older than me who swims competitively and was looking for someone to swim with. I became a breaststroker, which is what I excel in. I was on a medley relay that set a world record but they say that records are made to be broken and ours has. In 1996, I went to a Masters swimming camp at an Olympic training center in Colorado. That was an experience.

Q: Can you do all the strokes?

A: I did have to learn the butterfly. I don't do that too much.

Q: What is the trick to the breaststroke?

A: It is all a matter of timing.

Q: What about your individual records?

A: Age groups are broken into five year increments and I would rank in the top 10 in most of the events when I would age up, so like when I was 60, 65, 70, etc. When you get to be a senior, you don't want to be the oldest in your age group but the youngest. In 2017, I will be swimming in the 80-to-84 age group. I am thinking it might be a good time to re-enter the competition world.

Q: You haven’t been swimming competitively?

A: I just haven't been interested in going to meets since my husband, Sam, passed away in April 2015. I went to Ireland a year ago to see my daughter, Amy, swim the Liffey River race and I decided I was going to do it. I never had been a distance swimmer but now I have fallen in love with open water swimming.

Q: What was it like swimming the Liffey?

A: The race has been going on for 97 years. The men dive in first and a half hour later, the women dive in. Before each section begins, we sang, "Molly Malone." The race is 2,200 meters, just like a mile and a half. We dove in right where the Guinness Brewery is and we swam under 12 bridges. I swam the race in about 35 minutes and I was really happy with that.

Q: What the water cold?

A: Oh my gosh but not as bad as the Irish Sea. I found that after about 20 or 40 strokes, you get used to the coldness.

Q: What it is about the Liffey Swim that you liked so much?

A: I liked swimming it with my daughter. I liked that there weren't any pool walls. I just loved it.