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99-year-old swimmer just shattered the centenarian world record in the 400m freestyle

Betty Brussel didn't even start swimming competitively until her late-60s.

swimmers in a lap pool
Jim De Ramos/Canva

Did you know that swim categories go beyond age 100?

It's common knowledge that as we age, our bodies change, and at some point, we aren't able to do the things we used to do.

But somebody forgot to tell Betty Brussel that.

In January of 2024, the 99-year-old Dutch-Canadian swimmer shattered the world record for the 400-meter freestyle swim at a swim meet in Saanich, British Columbia, completing the event in 12 minutes and 50.3 seconds—nearly four minutes faster than the previous record in the 100 to 104-year-old age group. (Though Brussel is currently 99, swimming competitions go by year of birth to determine age categories.)


Swimming may be low-impact, but it's not easy. The fact that there is a 100 to 104-year-old age group for swimming is a testament to some of our elders' fitness and stamina. Even just climbing onto the platform at an entire century old is a feat worthy of acknowledgment. Breaking not only the 400-meter freestyle record but also the 50-meter breaststroke and 50-meter backstroke records as well is a whole other level.

And get this: Brussel didn't start competing until she was in her late 60s, which makes her record-breaking swims all the more impressive.

"When I’m racing, I don’t think about anything," she told Guardian Sport. "Nothing. I just count the laps, so that I know how many I have left. I always try to find a pace that I can sustain – you’re asking a lot from your body in these races. And on the last lap, well, I give it everything I have."

Brussel learned to swim in the canals of the Netherlands, where she grew up. But according to the Washington Post, as the second eldest of 12 children, Brussel was tasked with looking after her younger siblings, so she wasn't able to pursue the sports she was interested in such as swimming, skating and gymnastics. In fact, she didn't even take up swimming as a serious hobby until after she retired in 1982. She entered her first competition nine years later, at 68 years old.

For the past 30 years, Brussel has competed in swim meets all around the world. She still drives herself to swim practices twice a week and walks for 45 minutes on the days she doesn't swim. The only physical help she needs at this point is a hearing aid and a hand to give her some stability while climbing up onto the swim platform.

According to her swim coach, Brussel doesn't really care much about the world records she's broken, which are plentiful,. She just really enjoys swimming.

“I love being in a pool and gliding through the water,” she told the Globe and Mail. “I feel better when I get out than when I go in. Swimming is my love. It makes me forget all of my worries and I feel great.”

Brussel is a widow of 11 years and lives with her rescue cat, Mika. She has three children, ages 69, 72 and 74. She competed in five events at the Saanich swim meet and was recovered and feeling energized within an hour. She will turn 100 in July.

A documentary about Brussel and her extraordinary swimming accomplishments is in the works, tentatively due to come out in the fall of 2024.

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