Photo: Mackenzie Stroh
62, Westbrook, Maine
Occupation: World-record holder, oldest woman to swim the Catalina Channel and the Tsugaru Strait
What sparks her mettle: Small successes
"Sixteen years ago, the extent of my exercise routine was an occasional walk around the neighborhood. I knew how to swim, but rarely did. But my youngest brother, Robbie, was an accomplished swimmer, and my 16-year-old son, Tom, was on the school swim team. When Robbie died of a heart attack that year at the age of 34, it was a terrible blow. Tom told me he wanted to sign up for a local 2.4-mile ocean swim called Peaks to Portland in honor of his uncle, who'd won the race twice. I said, 'I wish I could do that.' He said, 'You can if you try.' So I started training in Robbie's honor. My first night at the pool, I asked the lifeguard to keep an eye on me. I didn't know if I could swim two laps. It took me more than a year to qualify for the Peaks—you have to swim a mile in less than 45 minutes—but I did it. Just before the race, I remember standing in my bathing suit, a big girl in her late 40s with gray hair, next to a bunch of slender young athletes. I thought, 'What the hell did you talk yourself into?' But then I told myself, 'Come on, Pat. You've trained for this. Enjoy it.' So I did, and I discovered the beauty of open-water swimming. Small successes make all the difference. As my endurance and speed have improved, I've gained confidence. Every record I break, every swim I take on, and every goal I meet gives me a little more belief in myself."