Forest Lakes resident Katherine Kronwall started swimming at the ripe age of 64. Sixteen years later, she is still at it, scooping up medals in her age bracket at senior events across the country.
The activity keeps her physically fit and mentally sharp, with an energy level more akin to teenage girls than octogenarians. Her conversation style is laced with humor and real-life stories. She doesn’t have much patience for senior citizens who dwell on their aches and pains.
“If you concentrate on all the bad stuff that’s happened to you and don’t try anymore, you’re not going to get anything,” she said.
Kronwall took up swimming to stay active and in shape. In doing so, she found it also helped with her asthma, a lifelong affliction. It didn’t take long for Kronwall to realize swimming was something she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She signed up for a master’s swimming course, figuring if she was going to do it, she may as well learn to do it well. Without her knowledge, her coach signed her up to swim against other seniors – and she has been competing ever since.
Kronwall is a cheerleader of sorts for senior swimmers. She is willing to work with any senior who wants to learn how to swim at the Durango Community Recreation Center, where she worked as a lifeguard from 2007 through 2012.
“I can yell, ‘Walk, please!’ in 22 different volumes,” she said of her former job.
Kronwall hits the pool at least once a week, and every visit is uplifting and inspiring to staff and other swimmers, said Kim Ebner, aquatics supervisor at the rec center.
“She will go up to a random stranger and say, ‘Hey, you need to fix this with your stroke,’” Ebner said. “She just doesn’t have that filter of caring what other people think about her. She wants to help you with swimming, and that’s her passion.”
She taught Jessie Fiorini, 67, how to swim seven years ago, and Bob Randles, 80, how to swim four years ago.
“She was very patient, just kept working with me,” Fiorini said.
Half joking, Kronwell says other sports such as running and bicycling can be detrimental to one’s health.
“You run along the freeway, you get hit by a car, you’re breathing in carbon dioxide – you could die,” she said. “You ride a bicycle – besides possibly being hit by a car or undoubtedly being hated by everyone that has to get by you – you’re killing your knees. The only way you hurt yourself in swimming is if you drown, and if you drown, you no longer care.”
All kidding aside, Kronwall said swimming is good exercise and a low-impact sport, especially for seniors. “You want to clear your sinuses, try a flip turn,” she said. “It will clear them right out. Of course you’ll swallow a lot of water, but everything has drawbacks.”
But many seniors are reluctant to take up swimming, saying they don’t want to be seen in a bathing suit, or they don’t want to jump into the cold water, or they don’t want to get their hair wet.
To them, Kronwall says: “It’s fun. Get off your fat ass and quit complaining.”
Kronwall was born in the Chicago area, and studied fine arts at the University of New Mexico, where she fell in love with the West. She has been married twice, or as she calls it: “Mistake No. 1 and Mistake No. 2.” She lived in Albuquerque for 25 years before moving to Durango about 10 years ago. She has two children, one who works in law enforcement and another who is a “heavy-metal Gothic rock-and-roller.” She was a stay-at-home mom and used to run a boarding-and-training center for Arabian horses.
Kronwall broke her femur in March while carrying reindeer decorations into her garage. “Literally, I was a grandma runover by a reindeer,” she said. She has a metal plate and eight screws holding the bone together. But it hasn’t stopped her from swimming; in fact, swimming helped her recovery.
Kronwall competed in eight events in October at the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, and won eight medals. Granted, she was the only competitor in a couple of events, but it was an impressive overall showing, including winning a bronze medal for swimming a mile – 60 lengths of the swimming pool – in 52 minutes.
But she is most proud of the bronze medal she won in the 50-meter freestyle, in which competitors dive off blocks and swim two lengths of the pool. Because she broke her femur six months earlier, she was unable to jump off the starting block, which is a significant handicap for such a short swim. There were seven competitors, including four who jumped off the starting blocks and two who started in the water, pushing off the side.
“I can’t even push off the side of the pool with this leg,” she said. “I just sort of have to flop in the water like a brick, and then go.”
After breaking her leg, it would have been easy to sit on the couch and watch Hallmark movies all day, she said, “but that’s just not in my nature.”
“If I can learn how to swim at 65 having no athletic ability whatsoever, anybody can,” she said. “If you can’t, you can’t, but if you don’t try, you’ll never know.”