While we’ve been mesmerized during the past few days by our USA Swim team competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, The Waterpark is the go-to workout facility for a pretty famous swimmer — 89-year-old Patty Aspinall Reel. You can find her doing the “walking water workout” on Tuesday mornings in the lazy river.
But in an era of 140 characters, multimillion-dollar athletic contracts and billion-dollar-generating Olympic games, it’s hard to relate to Reel’s recollections of her time swimming competitively.
In 1940, Patty was a 13-year-old swimming prodigy with her eyes set on the Olympic team. Unlike today’s young competitive swimmers, she kept a fairly normal routine without many perks of her athletic status. No Ralph Lauren wardrobe, no duffle bag filled with Speedo and Nike apparel.
“We didn’t even have team warm-up suits, just a big robe we’d put on between heats,” she laughed. “We had to pay our own way to the Olympic trials – it was strictly amateur.”
She began swimming around the age of seven when her father joined the Riviera Club in 1933. The club’s first swim instructor happened to be Euphrasia Donnelly, the first Hoosier woman to capture a gold medal in swimming in 1924. That training led her to begin training at the Indiana Athletic Club with Dick Papenguth. At age 12, she broke the record for 200 breast stroke at the dedication of the Purdue University pool; the next year she qualified for the 1940 Olympics at Helsinki.
Unfortunately, the 1940 Olympics were cancelled with the onset of WWII. She won the national championship for 200 breast stroke in 1940, ’41, ’42 and ’43 and would have been a shoo-in for the 1944 games, which were also cancelled. “It was disappointing, I suppose. But they had to cancel – it was just too dangerous.”
Instead of heading to the Olympics, Reel headed to DePauw University in the fall of 1944 where she majored in physical education. While she gave up swimming competitively, she has never given up her love of the sport. From participating in exhibitions to teaching swimming, she’s kept one foot poolside throughout her life.
At 89 years old, it’s clear that active lifestyle has been pretty beneficial. The petite, bubbly blonde participates in the Tuesday water walk “against the current” in The Waterpark’s “lazy river.” She and her husband John regularly frequent the indoor recreation facilities as well, including walking the track.
And she has some words of wisdom for parents dreaming of a competitive swimmer.
“Leave it to the child,” she says. “There are too many parents trying to push their children into things they don’t enjoy. You have to love it to make the commitment it takes to be a champion.”