Gerry Hannelly took the plunge about five years ago. Literally. Hannelly began swimming regularly at the Ocean City Aquatic and Fitness Center. What first started as attending aquatic exercise classes turned into swimming laps - something the Ocean City woman had never done.

Now, at the age of 70, the Hannelly swims laps several times a week. "I swim better now than I did when I was younger," she said.

And swimming, she says, has the added benefit of not contributing to any aches and pains - and if she can't walk well due to her bad knee, swimming keeps her moving. "You don't have the pressures that you have when you're on land."

Doctors and health advocates have long touted swimming as a perfect exercise for aging bodies. There's no impact on the joints, there's plenty of resistance to keep muscles strong and swimming works the whole body.

If folks needed any more convincing, they got it in September, when 64-year-old Diana Nyad made news with her 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida - an accomplishment that demonstrated that older athletes can still make a mark in the water.

"Swimming helps us increase both our cardiovascular and our muscular endurance. In fact, those who swim regularly enjoy increased oxygen distribution to their muscles, brain, lungs and other bodily organs," said Lynn Hyde, a fitness specialist with the AtlantiCare LifeCenter. "Because there is no impact, swimming can be continued for a lifetime."

Many who discovered swimming again later in life find they are better at it now than they were when they were younger.

Joe Keenan, 70, of Seaville, long has been very athletic. A competitive runner, Keenan picked up swimming as a form of cross-training about 30 years ago. When a knee injury several years ago resulted with a full knee replacement, Keenan began swimming as his main form of exercise. He found he still could learn new tricks.

Earlier this year, Keenan discovered an adult group swim workout coached by Bruckner Chase at the Ocean City Aquatic and Fitness Center. He found he couldn't keep up with those even in the slowest lane unless he used a pull buoy between his legs - a flotation device swimmers use to keep their legs floating while they focus on their arm stroke.

Chase told Keenan to get rid of the pull buoy and learn how to swim without the floatation aid. "I said I can't get rid of this, I'll drown," Keenan said.

But earlier this year, Keenan began swimming without it. "I'm still in the slow lane, but at least I can keep up with the slow lane," he said. "I can see myself, even at this age, I'm getting better. Usually the older you get, the worse you get, but with the swimming, I'm actually getting better."

One of the reasons why Keenan and others find they are getting better at swimming as they get older is that they are learning better techniques and learning how to relax, said Chase, who said he too has substantially improved as a swimmer as he aged.

"I think we are never too old to learn new basic techniques, and I think that those who are swimming substantially better now probably did not benefit from the myriad of new coaching styles and techniques that are now out there," Chase said. "Swimming has always been a thinking athlete's sport, so I am not surprised that the wisdom of age that can aid success in long distance pursuits can also aid those re-learning how to move through the water."

Tom Morris, 69, of Ocean City, still is an avid triathlete, even as the age group competition lessens. But, he said, he's getting to a point where running is harder on his body than it used to. He now takes off every other day from running, but swims to maintain his fitness. "It's the best all-around workout," he said.

Swimming, Morris said, is very important to his fitness regime, especially as he ages, because it doesn't aggravate existing injuries. "Swimming maintains flexibility and strength," he said, "especially flexibility."

Bobbi Taylor, 64, of Somers Point, learned to swim as a child, but didn't get in a pool for more than splashing around for almost 50 years. Then, she had weight loss surgery and her doctors advised she become more active.

What began as kicking back and forth while holding on to a foam floatation noodle about two years ago, transformed into something Taylor never expected. Lifeguards at the pool began encouraging her to try new things. When she reached a point where she could swim without the noodle, one lifeguard gave her a pair of purple goggles to encourage her to put her face in the water.

"She helped me add one length (of the pool) every three, four, five days, and I'm now up to a half mile," said Taylor, who has lost 100 pounds since her surgery.

"This is my exercise and even more than that, it's extremely therapeutic for stress, for tension," she said. "You just pound the heck out of the water. I've changed my whole life around this."

Taylor said she was never athletic before and never thought of swimming as a sport.

Now, she says, "I can't be without it."

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