Chris Smith uses the water for completely different reasons than most people his age.
Most use it for relaxation, but the 84-year-old has one thing on his mind when he jumps into the pools in Canada ... setting more swimming records.
He holds dozens of Canadian and Ontario records and has broken around 70 Ontario records, a remarkable feat not just because of his age. Two years ago he survived a quintuple bypass operation.
“I was the oldest person in the [hospital] ward, I was 83 and I seemed to be recovering faster than everyone else,” said Smith recently during an interview with Toronto Star.
“The fact that I was physically healthy, that’s why I recovered so fast,” said Smith, crediting his swift recovery to swimming.
Only a month after his surgery in November 2014 at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, Smith was back in the water, rebuilding his stamina. In April 2015, he started competing — and winning — again.
Smith has strong Bermuda connections, his parents being Bermudian. They went to Montreal for a couple of years after they were married and moved back to Bermuda when Smith was a year old. He has had a home here since, now owned by his eldest son, Tomas.
Smith attended Warwick Academy and then Saltus Grammar School but went away for high school at St Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario.
He later attended Royal Roads, in Victoria, British Columbia, a component of the Royal Military College of Canada, served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Korean War but was not involved in any hostile actions. He later attended the School of Architecture at the University of Toronto and spent part of his summers working for Will Onions on the City Hall building in Hamilton.
After graduation he worked in Sweden for three years where his two oldest children, Kerstin and Tomas, were born. He then worked in Toronto, was the project architect for Commerce Court, the head office of CIBC and other projects, was a consultant to the City of Toronto on the redevelopment of the St Lawrence Neighbourhood, which transformed the old dock area of the city.
Smith also played a key role in initiating and developing not-for-profit co-op housing in Canada, which now provides affordable houses to 750,000 Canadians of modest income.
The octogenarian swimmer has found a new passion in swimming and is showing no signs of stopping. He is now one of the top-ranked swimmers in the province in his age group, poised to set several records.
Earlier this month at a swim meet in Buffalo, New York, Smith swam four events, the 200 yards butterfly, 400 yard individual medley, 50 yard and 100 yard freestyle, all Ontario records. He competes in all swimming events through Masters Swimming Ontario and Canada. His says his favourite event is probably the freestyle “because you move the fastest”.
On January 1, Smith was bumped into the 85 to 89-year-old age group, where he has already started sinking records.
“When the swimmer ages up, there’s a whole new lease on life, we get excited on ageing up because then we’re the youngest in the age category,” said Brigitte Zirger, the record keeper for Masters Swimming Ontario.
“[Smith] certainly is a fixture at most meets you’ll go to. He just goes all over the place and will swim and officiate as well.”
Smith, who has been swimming for 80 years, got his start in the sport early on the pink beaches in Bermuda.
As a two-year-old, he would run straight into the water whenever his family took him to the beach, prompting his parents to put him in swimming lessons when he was only four, something that was unusual at that time.
Growing up, Smith suffered from asthma. A doctor recommended three things: that he leave the island, join a swim team and play the bagpipes, so Smith was shipped off back to Canada where he attended St. Andrew’s College and captained the swim team.
“My asthma totally disappeared,” he said.
Smith stayed in Canada and continued swimming, attending the Royal Roads Military College for two years before being honourably discharged. He went on to become an architect, graduating from the University of Toronto.
Over the course of his life, swimming would sometimes wind up on the back burner, but Smith always came back to it.
There was a period of time where he had to stop because of a severe problem with his eyes from years of swimming in chlorine and salt water, but the rise of goggles in the 60s fixed that, he said.
“I see swimming as a meditation,” said Smith. “I also really enjoy the social aspect. Most of my friends are swimming friends. I have swimming friends around the world.”
Zirger said: “We’re looking at a person that is active, he’s healthy, he trains regularly, he’s out there swimming, he’s participating. A lot of people his age don’t. A lot of people his age have trouble even walking down the street.
“You’re talking about a very healthy individual. He’s doing times that some younger people would envy.”
As for the future, Smith says if he’s able, he can “absolutely” see himself swimming till the day he dies and, hopefully, continuing to break records.