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The science of why exercise is good for you: It works for her
By Steve Boman

Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen is proof that athletes can get faster as they get older

When Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen was a teen-ager, she was a good enough swimmer to win a scholarship to the University of Arkansas. But a year into college, Karlyn was more interested in partying than swimming. So she quit. Hello kegger, goodbye pool.

Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen

All through her 20s she continued to live the party life. Then she had an epiphany. “At the age of 31 I did an about-face and said this lifestyle was killing me,” Karlyn explains. “So I guess you could say swimming saved my life.”

Karlyn rejoined a college swim team and started breaking NCAA Division II records. She was faster as a 30-something than she had been as a teen-ager. Karlyn remains the oldest person to set (and hold) an NCAA swimming record.

When she was 34, she tried out for the U.S. Olympic team. She missed the trials by a mere 0.64 seconds in the 200-meter backstroke. Undeterred, she kept swimming. When she was in her 40s, she read an article about how the Australians swim freestyle. Karlyn worked on her technique, and it paid off. “When I was 42, I started swimming lifetime bests,” she says.

In her 40s Karlyn was swimming faster than when she was 19. She points out that when she was 42, she swam a 200-yard freestyle in 1:51.06. Her previous best as a 32-year-old was 1:51.99.

Karlyn is not a complete anomaly. Other athletes are also continuing to perform at a high level as they age.

For instance, Bob Bailie, another record-setting Masters swimmer, swam a 50-meter freestyle in his 50s that bettered his best as a collegian.

Roy Pirrung, an ultrarunner, placed second in USA Track & Field’s 24-hour run — at the age of 57.

Karlyn owns more than 140 Masters swimming records, and she’d like more. “When I put on a suit, I am ageless,” she says. “I see 60-, 70-, 80-year-old swimmers and they have limitations on land — they have walkers, or have trouble with their joints — but they get into the water and they’re free.”