July 13, 2005 - It's early on a Friday morning and the sun has barely crested over the cliffs of Pusch Ridge, but Sally Bolar is already in the water at the Oro Valley Municipal Pool.
For the 66-year-old, the dawn swim is unusual. Instead of carrying out her typical routine, today she is fine-tuning her time trials for the upcoming Arizona state championships of the United States Masters Swimming program.
"Sometimes it surprises me that people are surprised," said Bolar, referring to misconceptions that tend to attach themselves to senior athletes. Whether it's shaking off the notion that athletes over the age of 50 no longer have the perfect body or breaking free of the idea that they can't perform at the same high level as younger ones or learn new techniques, most athletes such as Bolar have an uphill battle in front of them, she said.
There's no mistaking Bolar's abilities in the pool, however. No stereotype is going to block the swimming lane for Bolar, who, despite being in her mid-60s, is getting stronger by the year.
In 2004, she won six gold medals at the USMS long course national championships - five individual and one relay. In doing so, she eclipsed the old national record in the 65-69 age bracket in the 100-butterfly.
Her time in the 200-butterfly was the fastest in the world in her age division.
Not bad for someone who didn't start competing until she was in her early 50s.
When not up against stereotypes, she's battling unrelenting foes in arthritis, asthma and degenerative disc disease in her neck, all the while recouping from surgery on each of her shoulders.
So far, she's beaten them too.
Throw in a slew of opponents left in her wake and the Catalina resident has mastered her life's adversities.
At the Oro Valley pool, Bolar will swim about 2,000 meters four times a week. These days, her daily regimen is designed to improve her endurance in the 50-meter long course in preparation for the July 30 through 31 USMS Arizona State Championships held at University of Arizona's Hillenbrand Pool and the Long Course Nationals held Aug. 11 through 15 in Mission Viejo, Calif.
USMS is an internationally recognized body, boasting swimmers ranging in age from 18 to 105, with notable names in its cache of athletes including Olympian Amanda Beard.
But not all swimmers are gearing up for the Olympics.
"When I talk to the other swimmers," said Bolar, "I say, 'You know, I'm 66 and I'm never going to make the Wheaties box and I'm never going to retire on my endorsements so I might as well have a good time.'"
The Wisconsin native got her start swimming competitively after watching a piece on the evening news about senior Olympics. Her results were immediate. In her first meet, the Sacramento Pentathlon, she finished third overall and the competitive fire was lit.
Because most of the major races are littered with ex-Olympians and swimming phenoms - even in the 50-plus age divisions - dominating the field is increasingly difficult.
But that doesn't deter Bolar, whose specialties include the butterfly and freestyle.
"I tend to race myself," she said. "It's as much competing with yourself to improve as it is competing with each other."
To prep for the state and national meets, Bolar is being coached by Canyon Del Oro High School grad Michal Romanowski, 19, who now competes for Swim Tucson.
"We're just trying to get her form down," said Romanowski, who is working with Bolar on her stroke form in a race condition setting.
As for how long she can keep swimming?
"Until I'm 105," said Bolar. "As long as I'm able. You can swim even if you have impairments. If something isn't working right you can usually figure out a way."