With multiple world records under her belt, this incredible pensioner is still creating a big splash
It is not easy to remember how many world records you have broken when they perhaps number in excess of 100. Jane Asher, just as animated aged 84 as she was when teachers sent her swimming before school in an unsuccessful attempt to tire their troublesome pupil out, is too busy to count.
“I could find out but there are better things to do,” she says with a huge, broad smile, as we chat on pool’s edge in London’s Aquatics Centre, the next venue for her record-breaking exploits this May, in the European Masters Swimming Championships.
“There are races to train for, people to teach, more world records to try and break! The week before a major event I try to do nothing, and rest, but it is so hard. I have always had so much energy. ”
There is also the small matter of her relentless weekly schedule, which alongside training and several coaching sessions, also includes tai chi, pilates, and watercolour class.
Normally one might joke that age has something to do with Asher’s memory of how many records she has broken, but this is no normal 84‑year‑old. Asher is the Queen of masters swimming, sweeping all competition aside in the last two decades. Upon her induction to the swimming hall of fame a decade ago, they listed 75 world records. In the 80‑84 age category, she broke another 25. Now competing in the 85-90 bracket – her birthday is in March – she hopes to break another 32 records this year. And this out of a possible 35 events.
When I relayed my sport editor’s suggestion that the two of us should have a race before this interview, she said it was a “silly idea”. I only realised how silly when I got in the water and could not match Asher for speed or stamina. There was barely a ripple as she glided through the water while I made a slow and almighty splash. A much-needed lesson was a far better idea for me.
Asher has also taught her four children and 11 grandchildren to swim, with two of her sons following her in Masters swimming. Jamie will join her in the pool for the European Championships in May, and at 33 years her junior, Asher admits he may be a touch quicker.
However, you would struggle to find an 84-year-old as fast. Her example is the embodiment of the adage that you are only as old as you feel.
This is a remarkable woman whose competitive edge, whose elegance in the water has been undimmed despite moving into her later years. And for her that means hopefully retirement will never come.
“I’ll keep going until I drop,” she tells me. “If anything it’s got easier as I’ve got older, even if I’ve slowed down a bit. Swimming is such a good sport for people of all ages and abilities. It’s always brought a smile to my face.”
She swam competitively in her early 20s, taking up coaching once a mother, but finally pursued racing across the globe after losing her husband, Robert, to colon cancer 25 years ago. It helped to fill the hole in her life and cope with the sadness of becoming a widow aged 65. In a strange way, it enabled her to become the sportswoman she is today.
“I suppose it did. I remember when he was ill, he said to me, ‘now you go and do what you like’. Swimming helped to clear my mind. It gave me something to focus on. I just love being in the water. It’s where I’ve always felt at home.
“When I first started doing lots of international competitions, my family thought it was a bit odd, and I was away a lot. But now they find it so exciting. They will all try to come for the championships in London.”
Her own life story is as fascinating as her career as phenomenally successful sportswoman. Born in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, she had malaria as baby. Her father, an American who served in the cavalry in the First World War, and her mother, an English ballet dancer – it is from here Asher believes she inherited her flexibility in the water – thought best to move to Johannesburg, South Africa.
At her boarding school she remembers girls were taught not to be too competitive. Her first race did not come until she was 17.
“My mother was sat right up the top, and shouted encouragement just before I was about to take my mark. I was so embarrassed and full of nervous energy that I swam faster than I ever had before and won the race. So now whenever I do backstroke I always think of my mother up above, and when I’m doing front crawl I think of my father with his hand on my shoulder. They always said I was the best.”
She studied social sciences in Rhodes, before doing a postgraduate course in Manchester, where she swam for the university. Asher then moved to Norwich, monitoring piece work in a factory, before marrying and becoming a full-time mother. Swimming fell off the radar.
Asher only got back in the water when a local school built a pool and needed an instructor. Aged 40, she was trying to encourage the pupils to enter competitions. The school were reluctant. “These were lots of kids who had failed the 11-plus exam, so the school didn’t want them to fail at something again. So I took them to a competition and entered myself. I was 40 and the girls were teenagers so they beat me, but the kids loved it. They thought it was amazing. But someone came to me and said, ‘you know there are races for grown-ups’, and it all went from there.”
Four decades later and Asher has barely lost a race, despite having both hips replaced not long after the turn of the millennium. About the only loss she can remember came to a good rival and friend in Montreal in 2013. Yet that was only because she could not hear the start because of a rock concert going on near the pool (two small hearing aids are about the only reminder of her age).
Her mission for the championships in London this May? Total domination.
Competitors are allowed to enter five events and she hopes to smash the world record in the 200m individual medley, as well as the 50m, 100m, 200m, and 400m freestyle. She has a sheet with all the records listed in a table, and has already crossed off the 200m backstroke after a storming swim in Crawley, Sussex, last weekend.
“I should be able to break those world records if I train properly. I just love the buzz of competing, of being in the water. I don’t know what I would do without it.”-UK Telegraph