Defying age

Coach Bill Powell finishes his 77th lap for his 77th Birthday swim at Bill Powell Natatorium at the Preston Center. “I get lost in the pool,” he said. “That’s where my whole focus is and all the problems in the world disappear.”

Jonah Phillips

He eases into the pool. The water is his safe haven. The zero gravity matches the level anxiety that escapes him when his body knows no limits – his body still knows no age.

An annual tradition of 29 years awaits him for yet another round.

He rubs his arms across his body warming up his 77-year-old muscles. He flaps his arms across the water as if to become one with the pool, like a man made for the water.

He takes a deep breath before submerging his mind into peace, into a common place where fitness meets solitude.

But 77 laps gains more meaning than the laps he swam in the same pool a year before, and the year before that. Each year is another milestone. When Bill Powell was told that a back surgery he needed in 2011 could result

in him dying on the operating table, he wasn’t worried about what he was born to do. He was worried about the simpler gift in life.

“I was scared of not being able to walk,” Powell said. “The swimming part never scared me.”

He tightens his goggles, fixes his cap, takes one more breath and soaks in what he once lost as the result of surgery.

Powell was suffering from three separate spinal conditions: spondylolisthesis, a forward slip of the vertebra, a synovial cyst, which causes pressure on the nerves in the spinal cord and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the nerve channel in the spine.

“I had been seeing a different doctor who knew I needed the operation, but said he would lose me on the operating table,” Powell said. “It was that touchy of a situation.”

Powell’s son, Dan, had been in casual conversation with a doctor in Nashville who knew of a 93-year-old woman who hadn’t walked in three years who now walks stairs without a cane thanks to the same surgery Powell needed.

This woman, like Powell, was told by another doctor she’d be lost on the table.

Powell met with Chris Glattes of Elite Sports Medicine & Orthopedic Center in Nashville to discuss surgery that would change his life.

“The first thing (Glattes) said to me was, ‘I understand you are one of two people over the age of 75 in the United States that can swim a mile under 30 minutes’, I replied ‘yes’ and he said, ‘Then we’re not going to have a problem.’”



James Johnson, the doctor who referred the surgery, swam for Powell for 20 years. Johnson started as a kid taking lessons at the Bowling Green Country Club when he was 5-years-old. He swam for Powell all the way

up through his summer breaks from medical school at Vanderbilt University, and now he had the opportunity to give back to his long-time coach.

It was Johnson who briefed Glattes on Powell’s condition two and a half years ago.

Glattes knew with the physical condition Powell at his age, combined with his aggressive insistence to heal the injury rather than cope with it, that surgery was in fact a viable option.

“We had success with similar operations in the past with different patients,” Glattes said. “We also knew that it would be a lengthy operation, but if we could have minimal blood loss, I didn’t see why the operation was not an option.”

Powell’s damaged vertebra was removed and replaced with a cadaver bone, remaining unconscious for over 24 hours. Glattes’ main concern of keeping blood loss minimal proved not to be an issue. After five days in a hospital bed, Powell went home on condition he would remain in bed for five more days.

“I bugged them so much they finally made a bargain,” Powell said. “I stayed in bed for five days, went and got my  stitches out and got in the pool. Of course, I couldn’t dive for a while and couldn’t do flip turns for a while so I worked back to it.”

Glattes assures that patients who don’t like to swim are at a real disadvantage. Only through swimming would Powell get his life back to normal.

“Bill is extremely healthy,” Glattes said. “His cardiac function is better than the majority of people’s. He is an extremely unique example of what we want all of our patients to be like.

“Swimming is one of the best ways to rehabilitate a spine. It puts you in a weightless environment where you can properly regain your flexibility and strength.”

Powell nears the halfway point when former and current WKU swimmers enter the pool area to watch a living legend. Two lanes over is Olympic gold medalist Claire Donahue practicing laps. Even she takes a break to look over and watch a man defy the odds of age.

Powell isn’t in a hurry. 30 minutes last longer when you’ve mastered the waters like him. At his age, speed isn’t what he’s looking for, instead he swims long, slow laps, taking it all in as something he may have once lost.

“Because I swim everyday, I went from dying on the table to no problem,” Powell said. “I tell senior citizens how helpful swimming can be. For me, it is the reason I am able to walk.”


Bill Powell grew up on an island.

“I swam across the lake every day to go swimming every day,” Powell said. “We had to take the boat to the store, to go to a friends house. We just lived on the water.”

Water is what drifted Powell from St. Joseph, Michigan to Bowling Green. He’s never met a stranger.

“The swimmers always tell me – you have the six degrees of separation, well mine’s only three, because I can’t go anywhere without running into someone I already know. If it hadn’t been for Dr. Johnson that got me down (to Nashville) I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

If it weren’t for Powell’s past connection with Johnson, the pool would be deserted dream.

It’s those relationships that kept Powell away from complacency as WKU’s swimming and diving coach for 36 years.

It was a connection to WKU from St. Joseph in 1969.

“There was a man on Western’s (physical education) staff that was originally from St. (Joseph) Michigan, which is where I was coaching at the time,” Powell said. “I didn’t know him but he still got the newspaper from St. Joe’s and read about the success we had been having. When he found out WKU was starting a team, he suggested me.”

Powell got a call from Athletic Director Ted Hornback, who decided between two candidates among a stack of applications. It came down to Powell and the swim coach at Kansas, a school that was cutting its swim program.

The Kansas coach also happened to be Powell’s former high school swim coach.

“The boss pointed at a stack of papers,” Powell said. “He said, ‘I got a stack of applications this high, but if you say yes I won’t even open them,’ So, I said yes and I’ve been here ever since.”

There were expected growing pains that come with starting a program from scratch. Though, this was no new test for Powell. It wasn’t the first swimming program he had built from the ground up.

Powell coached at St. Joseph’s High School for nine years, building their program from scratch before coming to WKU and was named the Michigan High School Coach of the Year in 1968.

Powell’s arrival time at WKU wasn’t ideal as far as recruiting, so he once again used his connections.

“I sent out a letter to all (the coaches in Michigan) that said I’m starting a program, and if they had any swimmers that weren’t going to make it at any other college, then to send them down to me.

“All of a sudden I had all these kids coming up to me saying they wanted to be on the swim team.”

In Powell’s first year as swim coach, only one swimmer had ever competed in a swim meet. WKU went 3-4 in his first year.

“We weren’t very good,” Powell said.

Fast forward 36 years when Powell retired as head coach in April 2005, Powell registered a staggering 425 wins, a mark at the time that ranked as the second-highest win total ever in NCAA

D-I men’s swimming.

Nine years since giving up the title, Powell remains in contact with many of his former swimmers, saying there’s not a swimmer he’s ever forgotten.

“I was talking on the phone a couple weeks ago with a swimmer I hadn’t seen in at least 30 years and we were just chatting it up like old times,” Powell said. “I love being able to make connections like that.”

Whether it is his shear number of wins, his love for the sport, the athletes or dedication to a program that competes in the Bill Powell Natatorium, his lasting impression on everyone is what wakes him up every day.

“Western Kentucky swimming has been mine and my family’s life,” Powell said. “It’s meant everything.”


A sign directly adjacent to the clock in the Bill Powell Natatorium reads a quote from legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi saying, “The difference between a successful person and others is

not lack of strength, not lack of knowledge, but a lack of will.”

Aerosmith’s Dream On plays over the speakers as well as other music from decades past.

“We don’t normally play songs like this,” former swimmer Adam Mayer says as Powell prepares for his swim.

Lincoln, Ill. Sophomore Brennan Elsas has the honor this year of keeping Powell’s time on a handheld stopwatch.

Powell treads water conducting breathing exercises before he completes what one swimmer called a “sprint” for the legend.

“This is nothing for him,” Mayer said. “This is like a sprint for him.”

Powell knows what he is about to do is cake.

“Is it 77 or seven?” he jokes before he takes off into his escape.

He thinks back at the times when swimming was almost not an option. He won’t admit it, and he won’t let his emotions show it.

Powell recalls times when his spinal injury got the best of him, and his neighbor, Thomas Noser, would assist him into his home.

“I never noticed a change in his spirits,” Noser said. “He has always been an upbeat kind of guy and I don’t think he ever let that get away from him.”

At 1650 meters, the equivalent of one mile, the clock reads 28:00.56, another mile under 30 minutes.

On this day, he takes his time. He said he would have sprinted the last 50 laps if he could to beat that time.

With under 10 laps remaining, more swimmers had filed in to congratulate the man who is the reason they can stand and do such.

When 32:53 hit the clock, and 77 laps were completed, he once again proved that his youth trails his age, and that age is only a number in the life of Bill Powell.

“Next year is 78.”


Find the printed edition of this story here: WKU HERALD ON ISSUU