‘I wouldn’t have missed it for the world’ - Suffolk swimmer, 84, retires with 500 medals
- Credit: DOMINIC WHITEN
Retired Halesworth teacher Neil Howell took up masters swimming “by pure accident” - after being “badgered” into it by his wife and friend.
Seventeen years later, having raced at international meets around the world, picking up around 500 medals, more than half of them gold, he is hanging up his competitive trunks once and for all.
“If anybody had told me in 2000 what I would go on to do, how much I would achieve and where I would go in the following years, I would have laughed,” said 84-year-old Mr Howell.
“There’s a certain amount of pride that I’ve achieved what I have and I’m amazed how it’s turned out.
“It’s been a great experience - I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Mr Howell, who learned to swim at the former corporation pool in Beccles, entered his first competition during national service with the RAF in Egypt and co-founded Halesworth Dolphins in 1973, has been an advocate of its health benefits all his life.
For most of his adult years, however, swimming had been a purely recreational pursuit, as his career in teaching took over.
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Until, that is, in 2000 when a friend of the family spotted him swimming at Halesworth pool and suggested he entered a masters event – a special class of competitive swimming for those aged 25 and older.
“I knew about masters swimming but had never considered it,” he added.
“But this lady, who lived locally, along with my wife, badgered me and said why don’t you get involved?
“So, to satisfy them, I swam at a meet in Stowmarket – and I managed to win.”
Walking back to his car after the event, a fellow swimmer told Mr Howell that his time would qualify for the world championships in Munich, Germany, later that month and asked whether he would be attending.
Mr Howell agreed – but he wanted to enter more than just the one race he had qualified for.
He asked the Amateur Swimming Association to put on a private trial at his local pool and achieved times qualifying him for 50m, 100m and 200m breaststroke.
Mr Howell has also competed in backstroke, freestyle and butterfly “but it’s a bit too much for someone of my age”.
He represented Great Britain at the championships in Munich in 2000. Two years later travelled to Christchurch, New Zealand, for another international competition.
“That was my best ever year,” he said. “I was at the younger end of my 70-74 age group and came ninth in the 100m and 10th in 200m. They are the achievement that give me greatest pride.”
Over the coming years, Mr Howell continued to compete at national and regional championships, picking up around 500 medals.
He has swam at the Manchester Commonwealth Pool and travelled to events in Sheffield, as well as around 10 international competitions in the Channel Islands. He still holds seven records for the Eastern region.
Now, with two hip operations behind him and a pacemaker for his heart, the 84-year-old former PE teacher, who lives in Halesworth with his wife Julia, has decided the time has finally come to stop competing.
Mr Howell says the “aches and pains” felt after events together with the “hassle” of travelling up and down the country by train has convinced him to call it a day.
He also says there are fewer competitors in his age group to make it worthwhile.
“Several of my old competitors have passed on and others, like myself, have retired,” he said,
“Having been very competitive all my life, if I don’t get the competition then the edge has gone and the incentive is not there to try as hard.”
He says his “competitive instinct” comes from his years in teaching as head of PE at Halesworth modern, which later became the middle school.
“I’m extremely competitive - always have been,” he said.
Despite drawing a close to his 17 years in masters swimming, Mr Howell says he will continue to swim regularly for recreation and health benefits.
“I go to Leiston where I do 20 or more lengths twice a week,” he said.
“In my opinion, it’s one of the best exercises that you can do.
“I’ve got a great admiration for all these marathon runners, but it’s mainly a leg job, whereas swimming deals with all the muscles in the body that matter.
“It keeps you fit and gives you a great feeling of wellbeing.”