She swims to stay afloat

Bernice Phillips began competitive swimming after losing her husband to Alzheimer
Bernice Phillips began competitive swimming after losing her husband to Alzheimer's disease.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

POULSBO — Jumping in the water may have saved Bernice Phillips from drowning.

Phillips, “eighty-two and a half,” a competitive swimmer with more gold medals than she can name, lost her husband to Alzheimer’s disease, a long illness that nearly took Bernice along with it.

Gerry Phillips died in 2001 and for more than a year Bernice couldn’t touch bottom.

She had friends, but the couple couldn’t have children, and she found herself without any family.

“I felt like I was levitating, I wasn’t on the ground,” she said Wednesday, taking a break from laps at the North Kitsap Community Pool. “I just drifted. It gave me a reason to go on.”

She loved swimming, from the time she was a toddler in Spanaway Lake. Friends suggested she put the swimsuit back on.

Now Phillips swims five days a week. She’s traveled around the country competing in U.S. Masters Swimming events, she’s placed in the top 10 in backstroke and freestyle categories and in 2007 broke the national record for the strenuous mixed, one-hour postal relay.

“She’s in here pretty consistently,” said Samantha Cox, a pool employee.

Phillips joined a team, Poulsbo Piranha Swimming, worked with a swim coach, and can flex a well-defined, bulging left bicep, although she doesn’t like to show it off.

“Somebody might have a bigger one,” she said.

Originally from Tacoma, Phillips moved to Keyport in 1950, and then to Jefferson County. She retired as a secretary in the commanding officer’s office at Naval Base Kitsap — Keyport. In 2000, when Gerry’s illness worsened, they moved to Poulsbo.

Part of her drive comes from her competitive spirit, she has a Jordanesque reaction to naysayers.

A competitor gave her the cold shoulder once.

“She said, ‘Don’t expect to take any golds.’ I took all the golds.”

Part of her drive comes from competition with herself. When she’s a meet she dials in, focuses on her technique and blocks out all distractions.

But the main reason why she swims is because it saved her.

“I had no choice but to go forward,” she said. “I knew I had to find a new life, through swimming it all came about.”

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