To celebrate her 80th birthday, Conny Stamhuis decided she should, in her words, “do something crazy.”
Climbing into the waters of Okanagan Lake with more than 500 other hearty souls, she was among the oldest athletes to complete 2012 Across the Lake Swim—a distance of 2.1 kilometres—in just over 50 minutes.
Last Saturday in Kelowna, for the seventh straight year, Stamhuis took on the challenge and, primarily using the backstroke, successfully emerged from the water to the cheers and support of family and friends.
At 86, as the oldest of more than 1,300 swimmers, this was to be Conny’s swan song at the Across the Lake Swim.
Then again, she says, maybe not.
“I say that, but now I’m not so sure,” Stamhuis said, following the 70th anniversary swim. “I would like my grandson (John Stamhuis) to do it with me next year. I don’t know if he will, but we will see. Maybe I will do it again.”
When it comes to swimming, there is little, it seems, Stamhuis can’t do.
An accomplished swimmer in the pool the last 20 years and a member of the Okanagan Masters Swim Club, she has won multiple awards at both national and international masters events. Last year, Stamhuis captured two gold and two silver medals in the 85 to 89 age group at the FINA World Masters Championships in Budapest, Hungary. Two years ago, she was inducted into the Central Okanagan Sports of Fame.
All this despite barely swimming a stroke for 47 years. At 19, after moving from her native Netherlands to Canada, she said “life happened” and family, life and her career as a nurse took precedence over swimming.
Then at 65, at the urging of her son Mike Stamhuis—a champion swimmer himself—Conny climbed back into the pool.
It didn’t take long for her natural talent and love for the sport to rise to the surface.
“When I started, I could barely make it from one end to the pool to the other, but I kept it up because I enjoyed it so much,” she said. “Mike took me along to my first meet in Nanaimo when I was 66 and I promptly broke a record (in breaststroke). I enjoyed the swimmming so much and the people, I was hooked after that.”
It wasn’t long after he moved to Kelowna in 2001 that Brent Hobbs became well acquainted with Conny and her passion for swimming.
Hobbs, a coach and accomplished swimmer who crossed the English Channel in 2008, said Stamhuis is a true inspiration, both as a swimmer and as a person.
“She knows no limits, she exercises, stays in shape, it’s like she believes she’s still 20,” said Hobbs. “Conny is really the heart of masters swimming.
“She’s very encouraging and inspiring to swimmers of all ages and abilities,” Hobbs continued. “She’ll see recreational swimmers who are in their 60s, and tell them ‘I did it, I was able to do this and I took 40 years off from swimming.’ People really are inspired.”
Stamhuis’s impact on Kelowna’s swimming and sports communities was formally recognized in 2016 with her induction into the Central Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame.
In addition to being humbled by the induction, Conny admitted the recognition has added fuel to a friendly family competition.
Her son, Michael, who has set 16 provincial and national records this year, has earned his share of accolades throughout the masters swimming community.
“When people saw me, it was always, ‘Oh, that is Michael’s mom, that is Michael’s mom,'” she said. “When I got my award in the Hall of Fame, I told him ‘Michael, from now on you’re Conny’s son,'” she added with a laugh.
“But we have a lot of fun, Michael is so good to me. I am happy to have a terrific family, they do so much for me.”
As for what swimming has meant to Stamhuis throughout much of her life, it’s about so much more than simply climbing into a pool.
“To me it means I can do this until the end of my life,” she said. “And I will have a social life that goes with it because I love the people that do this, they have fun, they always have a smile on their face, I’m in an atmosphere that is so upbeat, it keeps me going and I wouldn’t want to quit.
“I want other people to see it is possible,” she added,” you don’t have to sit on the couch. You can do it.”
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