Water Wizards Learn to Swim Program Breaks Barriers at the National Senior Games

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Maurice Butler is a 72-year-old photographer whose life was saved by a team of masters athletes. Butler was staring down a death sentence, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When he learned he had the disease in 2017, doctors told him he had two years to live. Now, more than six years later, Butler isn’t just surviving, he’s thriving. All thanks to his work with the D.C. Water Wizards.

“I just decided that I would rather live life than sit around and mope,” Butler told Growing Bolder at the 2023 National Senior Games. “So, I joined this team and it kept me alive, to be perfectly honest. It really has. I think that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been able to last so long, is because I do this.”

The D.C. Water Wizards are a unique adult swimming program in the nation’s capital. Using public pools, the program offers fitness opportunities for adults 50 and up and masters swimmers of all levels, including learn-to-swim programs, water-aerobics and exercise classes.

“The District of Columbia [has a significant] African-American population historically and currently, and there’s a disparity in swimming and learn-to-swim access across the nation,” team coach Luis Salazar said. “We don’t have fees, and that encourages people of all walks of life to join our team. We are committed to the diversity and inclusion mission, and it’s beautiful.” 

The D.C. Water Wizards were founded 20 years ago, and created a team specifically to compete in the National Senior Games. The team has swimmers of different ages, genders, races, and religions.

“We are a large group of residents, diverse group of residents, and I love our diversity and just social interaction with each other,” said Marvin Blount, a 72-year-old swimmer on the team.

For many on the team, swimming has become a tool to bounce back from setbacks and build resilience for the challenges that can come with aging.

”We have a wonderful time together, but we all have different medical problems, too,” said swimmer Karyn Baiorunos. “There’s some of us that are really struggling, and they’re doing fabulously well. From beginner swimmers to swimmers who have been swimming since they were kids, we all get along, and we all help each other.” 

“It really doesn’t matter about winning or losing, because just to get here, we’re winners,” Roy Fagin, 71, told Growing Bolder.

The D.C. Water Wizards prove that it is never too late for a new adventure, to learn something new, and to add more positivity to your daily life. Many team members didn’t even learn to swim until their 60s or 70s. What they’ve learned is something much bigger than swimming itself.

“I think that anybody who learns to swim has conquered a new environment,” Coach Salazar said. “When you do that, you learn there’s probably no environment you can’t conquer. So to give somebody that gift that, late in life, I think is really, truly special.”

“I did not imagine being a competitive swimmer at age 72,” Blount said at the 2023 National Senior Games. “I was motivated by the Water Wizards, who encouraged me to join the team. I love the team — they encourage seniors to become more active. And I want to be as physically fit as long as possible.” 

“Swimming on this team is mostly about our physical condition more than it is about the competition,” Fagin added. “We do this so that we can enjoy our old age and enjoy what we love to do.” 

For many, whether in the pool, or in Maurice Butler’s case on the pool deck with a camera, the team became their passion, and eventually their purpose. Even in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

“I had a purpose in life, and the Water Wizards gave me that purpose,” Butler said. “I tell anybody, it saved my life, and it’s why I’m still here. You just have to continue to do the best that you can do until you can’t do it anymore.” 

To watch more Growing Bolder stories on the life-changing benefits of masters sports, visit Watch.GrowingBolder.com.

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