Oldest Gator Bait contestant keeps on swimming

Published 11:16 am Monday, August 25, 2014

Virginia Lee Cora, of Jackson, swims Saturday morning during the Gator Bait Endurance Challenge at Eagle Lake. At 75, Cora was the oldest competitor.

Virginia Lee Cora, of Jackson, swims Saturday morning during the Gator Bait Endurance Challenge at Eagle Lake. At 75, Cora was the oldest competitor.

As the tide gently lapped against the shore at Eagle Lake early Saturday morning, Virginia Lee Cora proved that old adage about age being nothing but a number to be true. 

At 75 years old, Cora was the oldest by at least 10 years to compete in the sixth annual Gator Bait Endurance Challenge, but that didn’t stop her from finishing the one-mile masters swim in a little over an hour. “If you condition yourself, anyone can do it,” she said.

Cora grew up in a military family, moving frequently, before attending Ole Miss and the University of Mississippi Medical Center, finally settling in Jackson 53 years ago. She worked as a geriatric nurse practitioner for many years, watching the elderly lose their ability to do the things people take for granted in their youth.

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“One of the reasons I swim is simply because I can,” she said. “If you want to stay out of the nursing home, you’ve got to get out and do it.”

Although she swam as a child, Cora became admittedly overweight and less active as an adult before getting sick of the extra poundage. She attended Weight Watchers, lost the weight and has become impressively active despite her age.

Three days a week, she swims 40 laps – that’s one mile – at a local pool. Swimming is actually part of her therapy for the severe osteoarthritis she lives with. On her off days she’ll walk, bicycle or maybe kayak if the weather’s nice, anything that keeps her moving and is low impact on her bones and joints.

“Older adults can do more than you think,” she said. “You’ve just got to respect and listen to your body.”

Cora swam in her third Gator Bait Saturday, and the difference between swimming in a pool and swimming in the open water of Eagle Lake was noticeable, she said. In an open water swim there are no opportunities for breaks, and without her glasses, finding the next buoy can become a serious challenge.

“I knew when I got out of the lake, I had swam a mile,” she said. “I know I’m going to be the last one out, my goal is to finish.”

Cora signs up for races like Gator Bait not so much with the ambition of taking home the top prize, but to give herself a goal to work towards and to stay in shape, she said.

You could say, in an odd, cyclical way, that she continues to swim, kayak and bike so that she can continue to swim, kayak and bike.

“A lot of my incentive is that fear of losing the ability,” Cora said. “If you don’t do it today you won’t be able to do it tomorrow.”

She encourages other older adults to find some type of exercise they like and get out and move too – that is, with the consent of your healthcare provider.

“It’s called get off the couch,” she said. “Just try something, and if you don’t enjoy it then try something else.”