By Kate Campbell
When she set out to swim competitively ten years ago, Sherry Oshiver, WG’76, was gasping for air by the time she reached the 50- meter mark. Although she was a member of the diving team as a Penn undergraduate and a scuba diver since her 20s, Oshiver quickly learned distance swimming would call for a dose of serious stamina.
“If you think about it, all you have to do as a diver is swim to the ladder,” jokes Oshiver, 50, who lives in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, and who in 1993 became a nationally ranked Masters swimmer. Members of the international swimming organization attend scheduled workouts and races and are ranked periodically at national meets.
Early on, the desire to race spurred Oshiver, who didn’t surrender to the exhaustion that came with mastering each stroke.
“I swam six or seven days a week when I began that winter. Physically, it was very hard. I wasn’t used to being winded. Gradually, my stroke got better. I thought I would not make it. But after four months, I could swim a mile of freestyle nonstop. It’s not just about strength and endurance – it’s also about technique.”
She was hooked and began swimming in ocean races and has placed fourth in her age group. “A quarter mile out there in the waves I felt a wonderful freedom being where swimmers don’t normally venture,” says the Philadelphia native and lawyer who worked for the Ford Motor Company and the New York Telephone Company specializing in marketing, finance, and contract negotiations. Also a speech writer and certified mediator, she has worked as a congressional liaison, performed regulatory analysis for the Federal government, and delivered presentations on legislative and regulatory topics nationally and internationally.
“Swimming is a terrific stress and tension reliever,” she notes. But her first race in Sea Isle City, NJ, in 1992 was punishing. Oshiver was among 300 swimmers as they crashed into the icy surf. “As the waves rolled over us, it felt like a fistfight in a washing machine. Unfortunately, I had decided I wouldn’t need my wet-suit and left it on the shore. The water temperature was 61 degrees.”
She tried to focus on the race, she says, to block out the cold. But there were other obstacles. “We hadn’t talked about the need to watch the shoreline and make sure we were not drifting. After a quarter mile, I went off at an angle and did not place too well in that race.”
As a competitive swimmer, she has since fought against jelly fish attacks – “it felt like a hundred needles stabbing me” – and powerful currents in many ocean races. All the lessons she has learned in the ocean, she says, have helped her navigate better in life.
“I learned that I had to keep swimming. There wasn’t anything else to do. In an ocean race, maybe like the rest of life, you run into a lot of things you can’t foresee. The most important thing is not to panic. It’s basically about perseverance.”
That perseverance has paid off. Most recently, she swam in a regional meet where she placed second in some events. She has even tackled the 100-meter butterfly – universally acknowledged as one of the most strenuous strokes.
Oshiver is hoping to carve out a new career in motivational speaking, transferring the techniques of determination that she’s mastered through swimming into helping others who face obstacles in their own careers or personal lives. “Starting to swim competitively later in life is something people might hesitate to do. However, even if you don’t do well at first, it’s important to stick it out.”
The experience of facing a new and physically rigorous challenge later in life will help to inspire others, she believes. “It’s never too late, and it can be done. People should not be afraid to explore very different sides of themselves.” And there are other payoffs: Oshiver was featured on the cover of a national sports magazine at the age of 45.
When she’s not in the water, Oshiver spends her leisure time volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and on her other favorite pastime, photography. Some of her photographs have been displayed at the Foundry Gallery in Washington, D.C., and she has also used them to illustrate several books she has written for both children and adults – about finding the courage to follow one’s dreams – which she is seeking to publish.