Above: Water volleyball players at the Lou Walker Senior Center include, from left, Renita Stultz, Charles King, Bettye Young and Frances Savoy, who also teaches beginning swimming at the center. Lou Walker’s volleyball team routinely takes first-place standings in area Senior Olympics competitions; photo by Donna Williams Lewis

Ray Ruffin developed a fear of water early in life but said he has always wanted to learn to swim.

Last spring, the south DeKalb County insurance industry retiree took the plunge. Now, at 71, he’s a regular in the pool at his community’s Lou Walker Senior Center.

“It’s given me some confidence and resilience, and I’m inspired by others who I see progressing,” Ruffin said. “My goal is to be able to save my life, if necessary, and to be able to save a grandchild.”

Indoor pools are attracting older adults across metro Atlanta with aquatic programs that don’t take winter breaks. Seniors are signing up and showing up for year-round classes such as Arthritis Foundation Aquatics, water fitness and water volleyball.

Warren St. James, aquatics director at the Lou Walker Center, said swimming is “one of the best exercises in the world.”

“As we age, we start to feel these aches and pains. Seniors are starting to realize the many benefits of water resistance on their joints … in a safe, warm, inviting environment where they can network,” St. James said.

Aquatic fitness programs provide whole body workouts; improve cardiovascular conditioning; increase muscle strength, endurance, posture, balance and flexibility; and can help with weight loss, he said.

“All of these things help you feel younger and more alive,” St. James said.

Stonecrest resident Frances Savoy, 66, says swimming has changed her life. “I’m a water addict!” she said.

Savoy had just taken early retirement from the U.S. Postal Service and was limping when she started at Lou Walker.

“My body was breaking down after so many years of dealing with heavy stuff and a lot of walking. … My back hurt. My knees hurt, and I had developed a heel spur,” Savoy said. “But within three months of being in the water four days a week, every ache and pain I had was gone.”

Several years ago, St. James talked her into getting certified to become an instructor. So now she teaches beginning swimming while also playing on the center’s water volleyball team, a group that routinely snags first-place standings at area Senior Olympics events.

Swimming at Lou Walker is open to facility members and to members of SilverSneakers, a nationwide fitness program for adults 65 and up with qualifying health plans.

SilverSneakers members also are welcome to join members of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta in aquatics programs which include “deep water therapy” with weighted balls. Classes are offered at the center’s Zaban campus in Dunwoody.

From left, father and son Bart and Mark Cohen power up their lunch breaks with lap swims at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta in Dunwoody.
Photo courtesy of the MJCCA

Mark Cohen, 66, of Sandy Springs, and a founding partner of Pull-A-Part LLC, an auto parts company, does open lap swimming daily at MJCCA with his son, Bart, 37, of Toco Hills. They are occasionally accompanied by Bart’s son, Yahav, 4, who recently joined the Zaban Sharks swim team.

“God bless him, Bart got me into doing this,” Cohen said. “For us, it’s been a wonderful family generational thing.”

It all began about nine months ago when the father and son, who work together at Pull-A-Part, decided to add some exercise to their lunch breaks. They eat at MJCCA’s Healthy Touch cafe, wait a bit and then head for the pool.

“I actually hated it at first,” Cohen said, of their lap swims. But now, he’s hooked and has even started listening to music while he swims.

“It’s refreshing. It gives me some interaction time with my son. It helps me with life and stress and gives me a way to maintain muscle mass and some aerobic conditioning,” Cohen said. “I’m not out there trying to break any records. I’m just trying to get 20 laps in. Bart does 35 in about the same time. I count my progress by how many times he laps me.”

Cohen’s not taking swimming classes. But people who do take them, find they can be modified to meet students’ individual needs.

Deanna Bustillos, an MJCCA water aerobics instructor, said one of her students who has knee issues brings a foam water belt to add buoyancy to her body if class will include a lot of jumping.

Bustillos said she always ends her classes with a fun activity such as partner exercises or partner races using foam “noodles.”

“They leave with a big smile on their faces,” she said of her students, “and they can’t wait till next week to come back.”

At the Lou Walker Center, retired teacher Allegra Burnette, 74, was all smiles as she talked about her progress since she started swimming 11 years ago.

“I have learned to do something at my older age that I have always wanted to learn,” she said.

Warren St. James, aquatics director at the Lou Walker Senior Center, talks with Allegra Burnette about the chair lift she uses in her intermediate swimming class at the center’s pool.
Photo by Donna Williams Lewis

The South DeKalb County resident was a complete novice and was worried she wouldn’t be enrolled because one of her legs had just been amputated due to a medical condition. She found that not only was there a mechanical lift to help her into the pool, but one of her classmates was also an amputee, and helped Burnette become able to laugh about their limitations as they learned to swim past them.

These days, Burnette treads water, swims freestyle and does the backstroke and breaststroke in Lou Walker’s intermediate class.

Linda Kobrin, 68, will join the intermediate crowd in January.

On a recent December day at the pool, her beginner classmates congratulated the Conley resident for moving on up.

“We’re so proud of her. When we grow up we want to be just like her,” said Joann Wingo, whose 61st birthday was celebrated that day with a class potluck.

Kobrin, who is retired from a retail career, became afraid of water after a traumatic incident in her youth.

“That did it for me,” she said. “I never went back until I was 67 years old.”

Now, she’s in the pool so much that her husband tells callers “the fish is at her swimming lesson” when she’s away. She has her sights set on swimming in the Senior Olympics someday.

“I have more confidence in myself and I’m meeting some really nice people,” Kobrin said.

Swimming also gives her peace, she said, and her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are impressed with her ability.

Savoy, the retired postal worker, said children can benefit from watching their elders in action.

“You’re teaching them something important about life,” Savoy said. “That you’re never too old for anything.”


Aquatics Centers

Enjoy water year-round at these and many other aquatics centers in metro Atlanta.

Cobb County

DeKalb County

Fulton County

Gwinnett County

Donna Williams Lewis

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.