When I used to compete in USA Swimming's open water national championships, occasionally I'd race against Masters great Jim McConica. The athletes would congregate at pre-race meetings, and all the young kids—gum-snapping scholarship stars from Auburn, Michigan, SMU and elsewhere—would wonder who was the serious old guy in the back of the room. They, of course, weren't even born when McConica was winning NCAAs while at USC in the early 1970s. But they sure remembered him after their open water races, because if McConica hadn't beaten them, he'd given them a run for their money.
Today, I live in northern California, and the name of Jim McConica, who lives hundreds of miles south in Ventura, floats into our wet ears probably two or three times per year. The information about him is always choppy and unsubstantiated. It contains legend, hyperbole and half-truths. We hear about the 51-year-old Jim McConica swimming 5 x 1,000 and averaging faster than 10:00. We hear he does triple workouts. Someone (who?) swears he saw McConica break Masters world records in practice while wearing long pants. Another; on weekends, Jim McConica swims from Los Angeles to Catalina Island (23 miles) because the island has a great omelet place.
How does a man who owns an auto dealership, McConica Motors, and who is active in the development of several multimillion-dollar community projects (including the creation of a 95-acre public recreation park) earn an aura of mythology like this? Maybe it's because last year he was SWIM magazine's Swimmer of the Year. Maybe it's because he has successfully swum both the English Channel and the Catalina Channel. Maybe it's by posting times like these when he was 50 years old: 1:47.69 (200 yard-free); 4:47.57 (500-yard free); 10:01.74 (1000-yard free); and 16:42.07 (1650 yard-free).
Last year, McConica, who has two non-swimming college-aged daughters, set seven national records in yards, and three world records in meters. He took home 13 number one rankings. His records in the 1000 and 1650-yard freestyle were faster than his own records in the 45-49 age group. In the 800-meter freestyle, his world record time of 9:03.84 was nothing short of amazing.
He did it, he believes, by training six mornings and several evenings per week with the age group Buenaventura Swim Club (he competes for the Ventura County Masters), and doing a weekly total of 25,000 to 35,000 meters.
"On our team, Masters and young swimmers train together," he says. "You can't believe the camaraderie and support this creates. I look forward every day to swimming with these young people—Father Time doesn't have to catch up for a long time."
By the way, did you hear the one about Jim McConica planning to swim even faster this year than last? That's not myth; that's likelihood.
published in Swim Magazine, May-June, 2002