Golden years? Not quite yet, but plenty of gold for Palo Alto swimmerby michael lazarus, j. intern
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Daniela Barnea likes Häagen-Dazs ice cream.
It’s a simple pleasure. One that the 65-year-old swimmer enjoys nightly by herself. In her home, out of the limelight. No cheering crowds, no flashing cameras, no records being broken.
The midnight treat is a craving Barnea can afford to indulge in, for she knows she will always burn off the calories.
The Israeli native — and resident of Palo Alto for the last 17 years — recently won six gold medals in the 2009 Senior Games held at Stanford University.
Although it was her first Seniors Games appearance, she tore up the Avery Aquatic Center, breaking the games’ record for her age group (65 to 69) in six different events.
Barnea then hopped on an airplane to Indian-
apolis for the U.S. Masters Swimming Long Course National Championships — and added three more golds and two silvers to her haul.
Not bad for a woman who did not swim competitively in high school or college.
In fact, if not for an unusual sequence of events, Barnea never would have even started swimming — let alone breaking records.
Born and raised in Jerusalem, Barnea had limited access to a pool, as the only public pool in her area was at the YMCA. She competed on a swim team at the Y throughout high school, but without a strong coach, Barnea never took the sport seriously.
After graduating high school, Barnea attended an Israeli college for arts and crafts and earned a degree in graphic design. Swimming was barely an afterthought.
In 1971, Barnea and her husband Steve, a U.C. Berkeley graduate, left Israel and moved to Emeryville. When it came time to start thinking about her children’s educational future, the family moved to Palo Alto.
At that point, a friend suggested Barnea join the Stanford Masters swim program; Masters swimming is organized by age groups, from 25 to 29, 30 to 34, etc.
“My first swim meet was in Berkeley,” Barnea said. “It wasn’t the last one, so I thought to myself, ‘That’s a good sign.’ ”
With professional coaches and a daily workout regimen — consisting of at least an hour of swimming as well as cross training, weight training, yoga and Pilates — Barnea kept improving.
Now, her life revolves around swimming.
“If I don’t work out, I don’t feel right,” Barnea said. “I always have a bathing suit in my car. Wherever there is a pool I swim. The first question I ask wherever I go is, ‘Where is the pool?’ ”
Some sports fans might not be surprised to hear about fast swim times by someone named Barnea. After all, U.C. Berkeley swimmer Guy Barnea, who competed for Israel in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, is arguably the best swimmer in Israeli history.
However, although both Barneas are natives of Israel and fast in the water, they are not related.
While Daniela Barnea will never have the name recognition of Guy, she certainly is coming into her own — even after opting to skip the Senior Games for many years. Although she has been eligible for 15 years, the 2009 Senior Games were her first.
“Until now, I have not been comfortable with the title of senior,” Barnea said with a laugh. “I could not see myself in a group of seniors. Once you get AARP and Social Security, you can’t deny it anymore.”
Barnea’s age-defying attitude is the secret behind her success.
“Age is a number,” she said. “You can be 75 and young in spirit, or 35 and old. The numbers don’t mean anything.”
Barnea saw the age-is-nothing outlook taken to the extreme at the 2009 Senior Games, which featured some 10,000 athletes competing in 22 events, mostly at Stanford, from Aug. 1 to 15.
The games included many amazing moments, such as 75-year-old Flo Meiler of Vermont setting a world record in the women’ 75- to 79-year-old pole vault (6 feet, 6 inches) and a tennis match featuring a 100-year-old man playing against a 93-year-old.
“The younger one won,” Barnea said. “Unbelievable.”
Adjectives like “unbelievable” are commonly used by friends and family to describe Barnea.
“What my mom is doing is incredible,” her son Jon told the Palo Alto Daily News. “She’s an inspiration to her friends, her teammates, to us. There’s not a day that goes by that she’s not in the pool.”
And not only that, but Barnea also was a model in advertisements for Dove soap’s Pro Age Beauty Bar, a campaign that featured “real” women 50 and older.
She also coaches a 67-year-old rookie swimmer preparing for next year’s Senior Games, and she also tutors foreign students.
Barnea fits her busy extra-curricular schedule around the Masters competition schedule, which has taken her from Australia to New Zealand to Germany.
“They say, ‘Join the Navy and see the world,’ ” she said. “For me, it’s ‘Join the Masters and see the world.’ ”
Mostly, the events are all about swimming for Barnea, but at the World Masters Swimming Championships in Munich in 2000, she said she became very emotional, realizing she was in the same location of the 1972 Olympics, where 11 Israeli Olympians were taken hostage and killed.
“It was quite a different feeling being in the [city] where the Israelis were killed,” Barnea said. “I thought it was important for me to be there.”
Any pains Barnea feels, mental or physical, she cures by swimming. “Swimming for me is like medication,” Barnea said. “It’s a very soothing and relaxing experience. The feeling after is so good.”
With that type of medicine, Barnea does not see herself slowing down anytime soon. In fact, she hopes to swim “until I’m 120, if I live that old.”
Besides, Barnea always has that little extra motivation to keep swimming: Häagen-Dazs.
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