Elizabeth Wensel is at Sholem Aquatic Center every morning, 10 minutes before it opens at 6:30 a.m., and the lap lane at the far end of the pool belongs to her for the hour-plus it takes her to swim her mile.
The 76-year-old has been swimming regularly for almost two decades, but about six years ago, she stepped it up.
“I made up my mind, I’m going to swim a mile a day no matter what,” she said.
She rides her bike — she got a new turquoise and white Schwinn this summer — a mile from her home in west Champaign to the pool every morning. She goes to the early morning lap swim on weekdays and is at the pool when it opens at 11 a.m. on weekends. Every day, from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day.
She’s got in about 70 miles of swimming so far this summer, and she finished last summer with 95 miles.
Wensel alternates swimming freestyle for one length of the pool with breaststroke for the next length. She never learned the freestyle kick, so she swims every stroke with the breaststroke kick.
Wensel learned to swim in the Kyll River while growing up in Germany. She had polio as a child, leaving her right leg shorter and weaker then her left leg. But she loved to dance, and she was determined when she was young that she would dance and do whatever else she wanted to do. She said the polio made her more aware of the need to be active.
She came to the U.S. In the 1960s with her first husband, who was in the Air Force. He died of a heart attack at age 39 while playing softball, leaving her to raise their three young children.
She remarried several years later, and at age 40 decided she needed to exercise more. She began walking from her home in west Champaign to Centennial Park, around the park once, then home, for about 4 1/2 miles of walking. She would walk the 5 miles to or from campus when she worked there, walking one way and taking the bus the other.
She and her husband Jim have been taking aerobics class through the Champaign Park District for 35 years. Some of the people in the class swam at Sholem, so Wensel took up lap swimming as well in the early 1990s. She started out swimming 400 meters, then increased to 500, then to 800, then 1,000 meters before deciding to swim a mile every day.
When the pool closes at the end of the summer, Wensel and her husband go to an aerobics class three times a week.
Wensel said the activity keeps her busy — along with the tailoring business she runs out of her home — and it keeps her healthy. She knows many people her age and younger on multiple medications, and she’s proud she needs no prescription drugs.
“I just can’t see getting old and dependent on other people,” she said. “I just like my working out. It makes me feel good, and I love doing it, and I’m a determined and stubborn German.”
She even scheduled a trip to the East Coast earlier this year for May, before the pool opened, so it wouldn’t interfere with her swimming schedule.
Lately, she’s been thinking about swimming through the winter at an indoor pool. That would mean a new goal: swimming every single day of the year.
Seeing Wensel at the pool every morning has motivated Terry Martin of Champaign, who began swimming laps at Sholem last summer.
When she first started swimming there, Martin made the mistake of trying to share a lap lane with Wensel — who pointed her to another part of the pool that wasn’t crowded.
“She likes her lane to herself. I’ve learned to respect that,” Martin said. “Now I’ve grown to have that same desire. We’re the early risers.”
(Wensel says she doesn’t like sharing a lane because she can’t swim next to the wall without hitting it with her breaststroke kick.)
Martin usually swims in the lane next to Wensel, and the two chat and have come to share bits of their lives with each other.
“It’s nice to see the same face every morning,” Martin said. “She always says, ‘See you tomorrow.’ I may wake up and think, ‘I don’t really want to do this,’ but then I think, I better go.”
As for Wensel, “I’m determined to do my mile a day, come hell or high water. I have to do it.”
Photo of Elizabeth Wensel swimming at Sholem Aquatic Center, by Darrell Hoemann.