Lady in the Water
At 71, Kathy Slifer is redefining what “personal best” really means
Cape Ann, by its very nature, has an intimate relationship with water.
Surrounded on three sides by the mighty Atlantic, this rocky promontory became an island in 1643, when, according to local historian Joseph Garland, Reverend Richard Blynman was given permission to “cut a ditch through the isthmus between the Annisquam River and the [Gloucester] harbor.”
With this first cut was cemented the idea of “seagirt.” Cape Anners as tough and gritty (some might say contrary) folk who manage just fine on their own hunk of granite extending into the sea.
After a series of incarnations, today the Blynman Canal and Bridge, known as the “Cut Bridge,” allows for the passage of pedestrian, auto, and bicycle traffic, and the flow of varied boat and pleasure craft. The channel houses the salty Annisquam River, a 4.5-mile-long tidal estuary of famously strong currents, which happen to flow in opposite directions as the river meets the sea at either end.
The list of fishermen, writers, poets, artists, and filmmakers who have braved, captured, plumbed, and embraced the waters of Cape Ann in pursuit of their livelihood is long. And there are countless others who enjoy walks on the beach, collecting the sea’s cast-off treasures, and bathing in rolling waves.
One resident who embraces the watery legacy of Cape Ann in a matchless way is Kathy Slifer, a swimmer who indiscriminately enjoys lake, quarry, ocean, and pool.
She epitomizes the belief that water makes us beautiful.
Community — and community pools — figure prominently in Kathy Slifer’s life.
She started swimming early, taking lessons at the Boys and Girls Club in Lynn. Like many of us, she started as a tadpole and worked her way through the aquatic ranks, swimming competitively at the Marblehead YMCA until the age of 16, when she “aged out” of the sport in a pre-Title IX world.
After a 35-year hiatus, she returned to competitive swimming as a Masters swimmer in her 50s, a proud member of the Cape Ann YMCA.
Then something remarkable happened.
She started getting faster and faster. Her racing times as a 60-year-old bettered those in her 50s. “It was so fun to see my times go lower and lower,” she says.
Today, she is a regular at the Beverly and Gloucester YMCAs, where she attributes her ongoing success to her teammates, her coach, Laura Dale, and lifeguard/instructor/guru Marlee Nelson who calls her “a prize to our community. Kathy is the swimming world’s hero — driven by desire, passion, dedication, inspiration.”
And she has the records to prove it.
According to US Masters Swimming, Kathy Slifer has posted 193 Top Ten individual swims since 1997. She has earned individual All-American status seven times, and FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation, an organization who establishes unified rules for swimming, diving and water polo, applicable at Olympic Games and other international competitions, among other duties) reports that she is currently ranked in the top five in the world in three long-distance events: 400m Freestyle, 800m Freestyle, and the mother of them all, the 400m Individual Medley (a combination of four different swimming styles —butterfly stroke, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle— into one race).
Recently, when Slifer competed in a 3-day meet (an exhausting feat in-and-of itself), one of her last events was the 400 IM. Her daughter, Sarah, posted a video of her mom’s impressive start with the caption: “Turns out this race, as well as two of her other events, would break Canadian national records for the 70-75 age group. Beast mode on Mother's Day!”
Beast? Yes. Boastful? No.
Slifer does occasionally sport her “National Team” jacket around town, but she has circles of friends who don’t even know that she swims — or if they do, it is in the most abstract way — they have no idea that she is an elite internationally ranked athlete.
Slifer is just so happy being “Kathy.” So grateful to be doing what she is doing.
She swims, she cross-trains with strength training and stretching, she bikes around Cape Ann with her husband (and biggest fan), she volunteers, she spends time with her budding-magician grandson, she travels to Scotland to visit her son and his family — you get the idea. And she squeezes in as many as six events (meets or open water) a year.
It is a lot of work.
To achieve the trifecta of technique, speed, and endurance requires constant diligence and a lot of hard training — mental and physical. Slifer is a master of technique. Swimmers are constantly assessing themselves — thinking about their kick, body position, entry, pull, recovery, repeat. She talks about a “feel” for the water — an elusive connection that keeps the swimmer forever a student. There is alchemy between swimmer and medium.
Nelson is witness. “She moves effortlessly yet powerfully, she knows and trusts her spirit and in this essence is her joy,” she says.
A natural teacher, Slifer spreads her joy every day. She has a wicked sense of humor, is wise, and doesn’t take herself too seriously. She points to a “coaching gene” in her DNA — her father was the crew coach at Boston University. She is always willing to share what she knows — to help others improve.
Lisa Zraket, a teammate, says “Kathy is one of the strongest and most dedicated swimmers I know, while being the most humble. She rarely talks about her accomplishments, but will always brag about her teammates to friends and coaches. She’d much rather encourage a swimmer to become more confident, help a swimmer with her stroke, or push her to become faster in the pool. She has done all of these things for me. I am in awe of her accomplishments, and strive to emulate her passion, dedication, strength, and most importantly her elegant butterfly, or what we call the ‘Sli-Fly.’”
While most of us won’t have a stroke named after us, we all can reap the benefits of swimming.
The Masters website cites “stress reduction, weight control, cardiovascular fitness, reduced cholesterol, increased muscle tone, and endurance” as side effects of taking up the sport, followed closely by the long-term social consequences. “The camaraderie found in most USMS programs helps to keep people in the pool well into their golden years,” they say.
Kathy puts it even more simply when asked for three words to describe how swimming makes her feel: “Young. Young. Young.” She respects the efficiency. All you need are cap, goggles, and bathing suit and you are ready to exercise “the most muscle groups in the least amount of time—all without impact.”
About 25% of Masters swimmers compete. If you do choose that route, there are some fun perks like t-shirts, ribbons, trophies, and … the super suit.
Technically, they are called “tech suits” but anyone who has wrestled herself into one knows the powers they bestow. The spec sheets are riddled with words and phrases designed to impress: “diamond flex textile,” “unmatched compression,” “optimal lift and structured flexibility,” “oxygen economy,” “reduction of muscle vibration.” What it boils down to is this: when you don a suit modeled after a shark’s skin, you are probably going to swim faster.
According to Slifer, you most certainly will feel amazing, because the super suit comes with a layer of invincibility.
“I hate how I look when I am trying on clothes, but put on a tech suit and I look great. I couldn’t look cooler if someone gave me a mink coat,” she says
Slifer’s final point about life in and around water is that — despite our skills, our strength, our cardiovascular health, our super suits — we actually aren’t invincible. Always, without exception, we must respect H2O.
She confesses some heebie-jeebies when swimming in open water. She remembers a couple of really scary moments in her youth that helped her understand that she must never underestimate the power any body of water. And finally, she readily admits that she takes the occasional nap after a hard workout.
Cape Ann’s nautical chart contains a laconic description of the northern mouth of the Annisquam River. “Strangers should have no trouble getting through with a smooth sea and by the use of the chart. The bar at the northern entrance is difficult to cross in a heavy sea. The best time is on a rising tide,” it reads.
Living here requires a degree of patience. Perhaps it is our location at the edge of the Earth.
Going … Just. That. Much. Further. That makes it a conscious effort.
Certainly, there is something timeless and determined about a place where currents run in both directions. Cape Anners like to think it is hard to get here. But really, it just takes a bridge.
Kathy Slifer is a reflection of both the sport she loves and the place she calls home. She is both approachable and straightforward, tough yet generous; before she is an elite competitive athlete, she is a wife, mom, grandmother, teammate, friend.
“Swimming is incredibly forgiving — there is no one in the pool that isn’t doing a great job. It is for everyone to do in their own way.”
Jason Grow is a Gloucester-based commercial photographer. He recently completed a long-term project making portraits of Cape Ann’s surviving World War II veterans.
✹ Inspired to dive in? Other than the Atlantic Ocean, the best local places to get started in the pool are the Cape Ann YMCA, 71 Middle St, Gloucester, (978) 283-0470, the Manchester Athletic Club, 8 Atwater Ave, Manchester, (978) 526-8900, and the Greater Beverly YMCA, 254 Essex St, Beverly, (978) 927-6855.