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The accidental athlete

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013 | Posted by


Tim Birnie, 67, hung out his lawyer’s shingle in Sebastopol in 1973. He and his wife Jo and their two daughters, Tate and Brittany, have been a regular part of the town’s daily life ever since. He just happened to become a world class athlete, breaking at least 38 world records, in his spare time.

Birnie is a swimmer and he has become a champion backstroker. This past fall he was inducted to the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame for his incredible performances in the water. He works out at Ives Pool, Sebastopol’s public pool. We asked him about his swimming career.

When did you discover swimming?

My dad was in the oil business and we moved around. I was born in Bakersfield, but we were living in Whittier and in ninth grade when they held fitness tests at school. My first love was basketball but I injured my ankle. When they gave me the swimming test I was the fastest ever freshman in the 50 yard freestyle. I am a natural swimmer. Then we moved to Dallas, Texas and while we had a pool, the high school didn’t have a swim team. I swam all over Dallas. I joined a country club summer team. I was persuaded to go to the state championship and I came in with the second fastest time in the USA of any high schooler. All of a sudden I started getting letters from colleges all over.

Did you think about trying out for the Olympics?

When I was 17 I actually went to the Olympic trials. They were being held in New York City. I was a skinny 17 year old (6’3” weighing 150 pounds), no coach, no team, all by myself in New York City. Fortunately another swimmer and a coach took me under a wing and were very kind to me.

After high school you kept swimming?

Yes. I heard from a lot of colleges, but accepted a scholarship from Southern Methodist University because I knew the swimming coach and liked him. I went to the Nationals in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Phillips 66 is headquartered there and has built a great amateur sports center. I swam any meets I could. In the 200 yard prelims I was between a two time Olympian on one side, and big, strong East German in the other. I was very nervous – dirty your pants nervous, when swimmer Thompson Mann told me to relax. “They put on their trunks the same way you do.” That calmed me. I made the finals. Our team did very well. We were fourth in the first division. We were selected to acclimate to altitude at the Air Force Academy in Colorado because the Olympics were going to be held in Mexico City. I came in second in the 200 yard backstroke. I did three workouts a day. I lost 11 pounds. No matter how much I ate I couldn’t keep the weight on. My skin was red and chapped, and I found recovery took much longer. That was the biggest challenge of altitude.

After college did you keep swimming?

No. Jo and I got married. We had been high school sweethearts. I never thought about an athletic career after college. We moved from Dallas to San Francisco in 1967 and realized there was a whole other world out there. I went to Hastings Law School. I did one San Francisco Bay swim, and for the first time I hit a wall. I went from second or third to 20th and was hypothermic. Jo and I took one year to camp around the USA in a van before the girls were born. It was when we were here in Sebastopol that I began swimming again.

What happened then?

I joined a group called Swimming in the Rain and we petitioned the city to keep Ives Pool open all year. A friend Joe Erwin, a swimmer, was an inspiration. Before he died he was in a relay in which all four swimmers were over 90 years old. I went to a meet in 1985. I did six events and won six world records. I didn’t even know that until FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation, the world governing body for aquatic sports) sent me the certificates. I went to two more meets and at age 45 decided, if I was doing this, to get serious. Eventually I was given membership in the Olympic Club. Swimming age classes are for every five years. The backstroke is my stroke. I study it. I’m not a maniacal swimmer like some are. I study the techniques and improve them. I went to world meets in Munich, Montreal and Indianapolis. Swim Magazine publishes rankings and several times I ranked as having the most firsts. At 55 I set four new world records. I was really surprised by the Hall of Fame. The induction ceremonies in Greensboro, NC were fun. They asked me about records. I counted FINA certificates. I had 38 world, and 33 national. I have no idea how many firsts I’ve had. I lost count.

How do you put work and swimming together?

I take off at 11:30, swim, and go home for lunch. Jo is a good cook. I take a 10 minute nap and am back in the office by 1:30. My two daughters are attorneys and have joined the firm – I am proudest of that than anything. I can take off more time. I work three days a week now. Going to a meet used to mean a huge amount of work when I came back, but no more. They handle it. I don’t do litigation so the courts don’t set my schedule. I will cut back to two days and then retire. Then I’ll get really serious about swimming. I am a better swimmer than I used to be.

Record book publishers, get ready. It’s spelled B-I-R-N-I-E.

Writer Spotlight

Andrea Granahan is our West County correspondent.
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