At 66, Darcy McBride is still swimming toward her goals

Courtesy of Darcy McBride

Darcy McBride with her first swimming trophies back when she was 12. At 66, she continues to compete for medals on a national level.

When Darcy McBride was 10, her parents gave her a YMCA membership.

"I went to the front desk and said, 'What can I do with this?' " she recalls. "They listed some things and one of them was swim team and I thought, 'Well, I like to swim.' "

McBride laughs as she tells the story. More than a half-century later, swimming remains a huge part of her life, connecting those childhood years in Fremont, Nebraska, to her time now as a grandmother and retired coach and teacher in Lincoln.

At 66, she's still training and competing in state and national events. Though she has trophies, medals and memories from decades in pools, she's still setting goals and trying to get better.

Last year, after a dozen years of trying and coming oh-so-close, McBride won her first medal at the National Senior Games, a bronze in the 200-meter backstroke in her age group. It was a thrill to finally have it hung around her neck as she stood on a pool deck in Birmingham, Alabama.

Yet she kicks herself for messing up her turn in the 100-meter backstroke -- her best event -- that cost her another medal. She's worked to fix that problem and is looking forward to the next Games in 2019, when she hopes to also medal in the 50- and 100-meter backstroke "and get a trifecta" of medals.

Courtesy of Darcy McBride

McBride, a competitive swimmer at 66, doing backstroke in a 2016 competition.

"There's always something more to reach for and I love that," says McBride. "Once a meet's over, I say I can take it easy for a while. Maybe I'm done with this competition thing. Maybe I've wound up. But sure enough, it comes back."

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McBride is trim and fit at 5-foot-8, with strong shoulders and arms from decades in the pool. Her short, brown hair fits easily inside a swim cap. She swims four to five days each week, and she goes even stronger as she gets close to a competition. Recently, she's fallen in love with pickleball and competes in tournaments.

"Oh, my gosh, I am hooked!" she says.

The rest of her time is spent with her five grandchildren, three sons, husband Tom, mother -- who lives about an hour away -- and friends. "I'm a pretty social person," she says.

She's also been a lifetime ambassador for swimming across her home state of Nebraska. She not only led her sons, husband and some of her grandkids into the pool, but had some 6,000 young swimming disciples in York, where she lived, taught and coached for nearly 30 years until retiring and moving to Lincoln in 2013.

York is a town of close to 8,000 on the plains of southeast Nebraska about 50 miles from Lincoln. A brightly colored water tower -- painted to resemble a hot-air balloon -- rises above the town, which sits at the junction of a pair of highways.

It's there that McBride made her biggest mark, teaching physical education for 28 years, split between high school and elementary school. She coached freshman volleyball and youth soccer, but it was as founder and coach of the York Dolphins swim program in 1984 where her impact may have been the greatest.

Though she loves the freedom of retirement, she treasures those Dolphins years. "It was a magical thing," she says.

"I was in seventh heaven because I got to do what I loved to do, and that was to coach and to be with kids and help kids and see the success of those kids. Just to see those bright eyes and happy smiles when you say, 'Oh, my gosh, you did it!' They just beam when they think they can't do something and they do it. It's all about finding those pluses, finding those small successes that you build on and lead to big successes."

In the program's first year, she hoped to get 30 participants. Fifty-five signed up. It kept growing until she stepped away in 2012. Over time, swimmers from those early years grew up and had children who also learned to swim and compete with McBride. Everywhere she went in York, McBride was among friends. That was great for her but a bit irritating to her grandchildren one day when they went to the city pool to spend some time together.

"My granddaughter said, 'Grandma, does every kid here know you? Does everybody know you?' She was getting so tired of all these people coming up when she wanted to spend time with her grandma," says McBride, laughing.

Seeing and hearing from her former swimmers is a highlight, she says. Last year, when swimming in the Cornhusker State Games, McBride loved swimming against a woman in her 40s whom she had coached. A few years ago, she got a call from a former pupil who had just completed a triathlon in Texas.

"She said, 'Darcy, I can't tell you how much I thought of you during the triathlon, and I could keep hearing your voice when it got tough, telling me what to do,' " she says. "She was thanking me. That was a great moment for me."

Courtesy of Darcy McBride

Darcy McBride after winning a bronze medal at the National Senior Games in the 200-meter backstroke in 2017.

She tried to model her coaching style after the first coach she had at age 10, back at that YMCA in her hometown. "Luckily I had a very kind coach who helped me out and nurtured me along, and by golly, I loved it," she says. "That's the kind of coach I wanted to be. I didn't want anybody to be discouraged."

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McBride has won numerous state championships since getting back into competition in the 1980s after taking time off to go to college, get married and have children. But since first qualifying for the National Senior Games in 2005, she hadn't won a medal. She'd been everywhere from fourth through eighth.

Then at last year's Games in the 200 back, she felt good before the race and continued to feel strong as it played out -- even though she struggled with her turns in that race, too.

"With the last 50 [meters] to go I wondered of some of these other gals, 'Are they saving it to really kick my butt in the last 50?' " she recalls thinking. "I was holding my own and inching up and moving ahead, and sure enough I was able to move ahead even in the last 50. I felt really good about that race."

Her husband, greeted her with a hug. Later she took her place on the medal stand. "It was a huge sense of accomplishment of having reached one of the goals that I set out to do," she says. "And a relief, like, 'OK, I can do this. I can do it.' "

The medal is treasured, along with a couple of trophies from her youth that are displayed in her rec room. One is a 6-inch trophy for winning a Nebraska state youth championship as an 11-year-old.

"It was huge to me because at that time I set a goal for myself ... and I did it," she says. "So that little trophy is probably one of the biggest accomplishments to me."

These days, McBride usually competes in the 50-, 100- and 200-backstroke events, as well as the 50-meter freestyle and -- if it comes at the end of a meet -- the 500 free.

Medals are nice, of course, and she'll continue to pursue them. But the joy she gets from simply swimming -- and passing on that love to others -- is even more special, she says.

"Swimming is just my comfort zone," she says. "It makes me feel good and it makes me feel healthy. It's probably the best exercise you can get, especially at my age. There's no impact, anything like that. It exercises every muscle in your body. The other thing is, it's who I am. I swim and I feel good. I swim and I work things out in my head. It's such an important part of me."

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