99-year-old Helena swimmer proves its never too late to try something new

Posted at 4:37 PM, Jul 25, 2022

HELENA — A few weeks shy of 100, Helena’s Charlotte Sanddal is inspiring her community to get in the pool. Sanddal did not grow up swimming, she learned at 72 years old. She is a part of the Helena Ridleys, who swims under the Big Sky Masters and Montana Masters Swimming.

“After I retired, I needed something to do. And swimming was something that didn't frighten me. I was willing to get in the water. And luckily, I met a good friend, Flora Wong, who encouraged me. And we started out by going to the Montana Senior Olympics in Kalispell. And that was my first introduction. And of course, when they give you a gold medal, you're just hooked right there. And it was so just fun to be around people the same age and willing to participate and enjoy themselves while they were doing it,” Sanddal said.

Not only is Sanddal impressive now, but she’s always been a trailblazer. She served as an Aviation Machinist Mate in the Navy as part of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services program and has two masters degrees: social work and Gerontology.

Growing up in the 1920s, there were no opportunities for women to participate in organized sport. Her first time being able to compete in a sport- and against other women was when she was 72.

“I was in awe of some of the other people,” she recalled from her first competition.

Sanddal’s story proves it’s never too late to give something new a try. With Master Swimming’s adult learn to swim classes, that’s a possibility.

“The adult learned to swim is broken into 12 steps, some people need to do 12, some need to do eight, some need to do four. So you make an initial assessment and break into groups and structures and take that group so that they're pretty much matched up and we go from there. At the end, what we try to accomplish is that everyone will swim 25 yards. Everybody can tread water for a minute. Everybody can jump into the deep end, get back, things like that. And it's basically to build up a comfort level,” Paul Landes, swim instructor said.

Not everyone starts off swimming 25 yards.

“It's a slow process, but we're very patient. And we start by having them put their face in the water, you know, and helping them if they're very afraid, helping them into the water, and then putting their face in it and starting to blow bubbles. And just get them comfortable, maybe walking along the edge. So they're not afraid of the water. And it's a process for some people. But if you take it slow, they come along,” Karen Simpson, swim instructor said.

In their latest adult learn to swim class, all five participants passed their swim test.

“I was reluctant, at first, to be an instructor. But once I did, I would do it again. I would do it again. Because it was so rewarding to watch our students take their first freestyle stroke with a breath. It was just very, very rewarding. And, they were so appreciative. And I just really liked it,” Simpson said.

The Masters are hoping to host another adult learn to swim this fall.