Swimmer still strong amid battle with Parkinson's
Columbia Daily Tribune -
It started with a pain in his back. Then he had trouble typing.
His legs began shaking. His feet would drag while walking.
He couldn't swim like he used to, his muscles tightening after just the first few laps.
For nearly two years, Richard Baldwin lived likes this, leaving doctors' offices with no answer and no helpful medication.
Six months ago, he wasn't cured — that might never happen — but he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and given medication allowing him to return to somewhat of a normal life.
For the first time since 2010, Baldwin, a 60-year-old father of two from Kansas City, returned to competitive swimming yesterday, participating in the Missouri State Senior Games.
He dived into the Hickman High School pool six different times, his black Speedo and gray goggles slipping into the water.
He emerged with two event records, finishing with times that even surprised himself.
"I get some satisfaction from it," he said. "Parkinson's hasn't gotten me yet. It will, though."
A degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, Parkinson's progressively disables a person's mobility over several years. Each year, the signs and symptoms of the disease become more pronounced.
According to several websites, between 500,000 and 1 million people in the United States suffer from Parkinson's.
The disease never stopped Baldwin from his pool passion.
While competition stopped, practice continued. He swam three to five times a week since the symptoms first started at the 2010 Senior Games.
"I kept swimming. I have to do it," Baldwin said yesterday, sitting outside the Hickman pool just before his final event of the day.
He won that event — the 100-yard individual medley — setting a Show-Me State Games record for his age group with a time of 1 minute, 14.52 seconds.
Earlier in the day, he set a Missouri State Senior Games record in his specialty, the 200-yard freestyle.
He swam it in 2:29.75.
In practices for that race, he did no better than 2:44.
Baldwin, a competitive swimmer since age 8, smiles when asked to explain the large difference.
"You're a lot more motivated here," he said.
His swim-mate, 68-year-old Dave Noble, stood next to him. Noble holds an allotment of records in his age group.
He has helped motivate his fellow swimmer over the last few months, when Baldwin's disease slowed his prowess in the pool.
"He describes it to me as this muscle here works to try to get the stroke," Noble said, pointing at his right-front shoulder while making a freestyle stroke with his arm.
"And these muscles here are trying to hold it back," he said, gesturing to the back of his shoulder.
It's frustrating. The medicine has helped.
Baldwin takes seven pills a day.
He expects that count to rise as the disease continues to strangle his mobility and suffocate his pool passion.
Even with the diagnosis and medication, Baldwin isn't the swimmer he once was. His times are 5-10 seconds behind those of two summers ago.
"If I hadn't had Parkinson's and swam those times," he said, "I'd be disappointed."
Before yesterday's last race, Baldwin pointed to his right leg while sitting on a curbside outside of Hickman's pool area.
"You start getting nervous before a meet," he said, "and your leg starts shaking."
But any signs of the disease are hidden beneath the water. Baldwin dived off the board, building an early lead and taking command on the final stretch of a race that includes four styles — breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and freestyle.
He finished more than 4 seconds better than the next swimmer, hopping out of the pool in almost disbelief. He immediately reached into his bag for the record book.
Did he break it?
He flipped open the book and scanned the pages. He broke one record — the Show-Me State Games mark — but missed the Senior Games record by less than a half-second.
"Well, you kind of coasted to the finish," Noble said. "You could have taken one more stroke."
Baldwin playfully swatted the rolled up record book toward the guy who's motivated him through the tough times — and who will continue during the tougher ones ahead.
"I know," Baldwin said, "it's going to get worse