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Three-Time Gold Medalist And Record-Breaking Swimmer Is 73-Years-Old

For the average American, who retires at the age of 63, a typical day may be spent resting on the porch with a good book. However, for 73-year-old Daniela Barnea, the only place she’ll be resting is at the end of the finish line.

“I don’t want to be another Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps,” said Barnea to The New York Times. “I just want to be first.”

Barnea, a record-breaking swimmer and three-time award winner, will be competing in the 17th FINA World Masters Championships in Budapest. Barnea previously beat the competition at the United States Masters Swimming Spring Nationals, where she competed in the women’s 70-to-74-year-old age group. She won three gold medals in the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststroke as well as the 200-yard individual medley.

“It’s kind of boring swimming back and forth, back and forth, but when you have a goal, it’s not,” said Barnea. “It’s like meditation to me. It’s very peaceful.”

A single hour of athletic swimming can burn up to 650 calories, and Barnea swims for an hour and a half every day, covering approximately two miles. However, this superwoman doubles up on workouts to train for competitions. For a senior, this may seem daunting. However, thousands of senior athletes like Barnea take to the gym to train for competitions and regularly compete in athletic events around the world.

In athletic competitions including the USA Track and Field Masters, the United States Masters Swimming, and the National Senior Games Association competitors range anywhere from 50 to 100 years old. A 2016 documentary produced by Erik Howell and Eric Goldfarb, “Impossible Dreamers,” follows athletes like Barnea as they grow from amateurs to competitors.

One of the noted athletes in the film is Donald Cheek, 87, of Clovis, California. Cheek is a record-breaking international gold medalist sprinter and frequent champion in his 85-to-89 division. Other athletes in the film include sprinters, weight lifters, and boxers in their 70s; racewalkers in their 80s; and a 91-year-old tennis player.

However, the goal of the documentary isn’t only to highlight these incredible and age-defying athletes. “We didn’t want viewers to feel inspired by the film and then go back to their regular habits the next day,” said Goldfarb.

The documentary highlights workout tips for amateur athletes of any age, but especially for those who are older. “The athletes in this film are not superheroes,” Goldfarb said. “They are all plagued with injury and real-life circumstances that happens to everybody, and they get through it.”

Barnea is no exception. While she trains hard and wins hard, the gold medalist has also needed abdominal surgery in the recent past and has been forced to rebuild her workout regimen. A injury to her rotator cuff from an accident while walking her dog has also kept her from competing in the butterfly race.

Despite these incidents, Barnea will keep swimming and has entered in 20 competitions thus far this year. “You need to trust yourself,” she said. “Trust the hopes and not the gears, and keep going around the obstacles.” The documentary, “Impossible Dreamers,” is available for viewing on Amazon and Netflix.

Photo: Jason Henry for The New York Times

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