Portrait of a Master: Beth Eldridge (USA)
National Masters swimming champion Beth Eldridge (USA) has a moving story to tell about how love and devotion to a sport can literally save your life. She recovered from extreme treatments for successive brain tumours without ceasing to practice, compete and coach swimming; a lifestyle choice she believes allowed her to overcome her illness.
Getting hooked on Masters
In 1992, immediately after Eldridge (USA) completed her college swimming career, she started coaching age-group kids in South Dakota. But it wasn’t long before she missed competing herself and started swimming in the open lanes at the age group meets. Eventually, when she heard about Masters swimming she started a team in Idaho in 1997. Two years later she competed at the national championships (50m) in Minneapolis in 1999 while completing a Graduate degree in Exercise Science.
Her successes at that meet (gold in 200m freestyle, silver in 50m butterfly and bronze for 100m freestyle), as well as the camaraderie offered by the environment, hooked her on Masters. Since then she has competed in one long-course championship (2004), three short-course national championships (2006-2008) and one FINA World Masters Championship (2006).
Pre-Masters, Eldridge was an accomplished swimmer who won championships and set records at the high school, college, and post-collegiate level, as well as within the armed forces, competing internationally and qualifying for the Olympic Trials. But her achievements, she says, pale in comparison to what she has received from the sport, namely the travel and people who have touched her life. “Swimming has shaped my character,” she explains, “and truly enhanced my spirit.” She also married a military man, which meant they moved quite frequently (11 times in 15 years of marriage), but this never prevented her from pursuing her Masters career, nor did the overwhelming health problems that might have ended her life.
Swimming for her life
It was in 2006 at the short-course nationals in Coral Springs, Florida that things took a turn for the worse. Eldridge had become champion in both the 50m freestyle and butterfly, but on the third day, just before swimming the 100m butterfly, she got stung by a bee. She swam the race anyway, but just after finishing she collapsed on deck and lost all muscle control. Her vision blurred and she had dizziness, vertigo and nausea; symptoms that would unfortunately become quite familiar in the years to come. Her problems persisted after the meet, turning to seizures. Nevertheless, she continued training for the upcoming FINA World Masters Championships in Stanford, meanwhile receiving several false diagnoses’. Eventually she discovered she had an inoperable brain tumour requiring radiation treatment twice a day, five days a week for three months.
Initially she wanted to delay her radiation to train and finish coaching her high school team’s season but her tumour was growing and her seizures kept coming. Thus, she began a daily routine where a friend would drive her 1.25 hours to the city for her first radiation, and then her coach would pick her up and take her to practice. After practice, her coach would bring her back for her second daily treatment before her friend, who would have spent the day in the city, would pick her up and drive her back to her home town again in time for her to coach her high school team. During these months the coaching, she explains, was the best part of her day. “I needed those girls more than they needed me…because no matter how I felt or how bad I looked, they treated me like Coach Beth and not like a radiation patient”.
Her radiation concluded and was followed by a successful brain surgery in March 2007. Her goal at the time was to swim at nationals in Seattle in May, which she did. With great support she competed in the 100m freestyle, placing third. But after the race she had a seizure and was told she couldn’t compete the next day. After petitioning to swim anyway, she swam the 50m freestyle, taking silver, and the 50m butterfly, taking bronze, as medical personnel stood by to monitor her vitals.
In October a new, rapidly-growing mass was found in her head and she was once again prescribed immediate radiation as well as chemotherapy and radio-sensitizer drugs. Despite radical lifestyle changes that helped with the duration and frequency of her seizures, the tumour grew to the size of a baseball and began to disperse.
Once again the high school team she coached gave her an amazing lift. They won their Conference Championship for the second year in a row, and they held a secret fundraiser, selling bracelets that said “Coach Beth Live Strong”. They also presented Eldridge with a cheque to help her pay for a trip to John Hopkins University in Maryland for treatment. Seeing hundreds of people she didn’t know around her town wearing “Coach Beth” bracelets was encouraging, she says, and the gesture of her team was “by far the coolest thing anyone has ever done for me”.
In May 2008 at Nationals in Austin, Texas, Eldridge depended on teammates to guide her after races due to the severity of her symptoms, but it was her first meet in two years where she didn’t have a major seizure. She also became National champion in the 50m freestyle and took bronze in the 50m butterfly. But by June 2008 she had been told that at the rate the brain cancer was spreading, she likely had only 2-6 months to live. She had already moved to Washington D.C. for treatment at John Hopkins when she received a call from her doctor in Kansas City, Missouri. Her last scan had come back “clear”. There were no longer any invasive cancer cells visible.
Back to normality
Currently Eldridge swims three days a week with the Alexandria Masters Team in Virginia, two days a week with her friend, and fills out the rest of her days with weightlifting, plyometrics and pilates. “I have just passed six months without a seizure and have started driving again – mostly to swim practice,” she said recently, adding she has recommenced competing since the nationals in May. One of her goals for the moment is to get close to the national 50m butterfly record held by Susan Vonderlippe, whom she calls “an amazing swimmer”.
When asked if she can see herself swimming her whole life she says, “God-willing, I hope to be the 80-year old swimming the 200m butterfly and smiling the entire way.” She confides that her best memory at the FINA World Masters Championships in 2006 was not taking fourth in the 50m freestyle in the same race where Dara Torres qualified for the Olympic Trials. It was not even when she placed second in the 50m butterfly. It was watching an 80-year old Japanese lady swim a great long-course 200m butterfly (something she is “too chicken to do at 38!”). She concludes: “Being allowed to coach, compete and succeed through illness not only made my trial more bearable, but I truly believe God used swimmers and swimming to save my life.”
Timeline of Eldridge’s victory
• Nationals, Coral Springs, FL May 2006: National champion 50m freestyle, national champion 50m butterfly, 3rd 100m freestyle, collapsed on deck
• Many misdiagnoses, episodes continued, seizures started
• World Championships, Stanford University, CA, August 2006: 2nd in 50m butterfly, 4th in 50m freestyle
• 1st brain tumour found; radiation twice a day from January-March 2007
• High school team she coaches wins Conference Title
• Successful brain surgery, March 2007
• Nationals, Seattle, WA, May 2007: 2nd 50m freestyle, 3rd 50m butterfly, 3rd 100m freestyle
• 2nd brain tumour found; chemo and radiation recommended, seizures weekly
• High school team wins back-to-back Conference Titles
• Tumour grows to baseball size and begins to disperse
• Nationals, Austin, TX, May 2008: National champion 50m freestyle; 3rd 50m butterfly
• June 2008, told have 2-6 months to live
• Wrote will, moved to DC for treatment
• August 2008, scan comes back clear
• January 2009, completed 6 months without seizure, began driving again
• February 2009, back in competition