THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO MINNEAPOLIS
By Rani Henderson - West Hawaii Today
Just three months ago, Steve Borowski could barely swim one length of the 25-yard lane at the Kona Community Aquatic Center swimming pool.
It was a surreal moment and one hard to imagine for the legendary aquatic coach and Hawaii Waterman Hall of Famer, who began his career earning All-American honors in swimming and water polo, followed by four decades coaching thousands of athletes to excel in the pool and ocean.
While not having the strength and stamina to swim such a short distance may have deterred most athletes from returning to the pool, it was quite the contrary for Borowski. He was motivated more than ever and for a good reason.
Borowski — who decided to step back in January as head coach of the Kona Aquatic age group and Kealakehe High School swim teams — shared that he had quietly faced a few physical challenges during the first three months of the year that became tough mentally and emotionally to deal with.
“I noticed that I had a tremor in my hand around the first of the year, about the time that I stopped coaching age group,” the 69-year old Holualoa resident said. “After I did a lot of research online, I read that I had all of the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. It was super scary as I read there is no cure, and basically, you are going to die slowly and it’s really bad. So you can imagine what that did to me mentally.”
During those first three months, Borowski said that he saw two doctors and again, everything pointed to Parkinson’s. While he was finally able to get an appointment to see a neurologist on Oahu, the waitlist was six-months out.
“January, February and March was hell mentally,” he said. “I finally semi-retired and then I was faced with having to figure out the rest of my life — who’s going to care for me, what’s going to happen, just everything. I was seriously depressed and it was such a tough time. There were all of those psychological variables that played into the physical side of things.”
And during those distressing months, Borowski said that he had his third surgery completed — two knees and an elbow — all done within six-months of one another to repair his meniscus and other soft tissue tears. There was never a time when Borowski felt so low.
But that was until he received a phone call from the neurologist for an earlier opening in their schedule, an appointment he booked immediately.
“I finally get to see this neurologist in March and after he does all of these tests on me he says; ‘You don’t have Parkinson’s. Your father had the same thing and your symptoms mimic Parkinson’s to a ‘T’, but you have something called an essential tremor.’”
An essential tremor affects the nervous system and causes involuntary and rhythmic shaking. It can affect almost any part of your body, but the trembling occurs most often in your hands, especially when attempting to do simple tasks such as writing, drinking from a glass, or tying shoelaces. While it can occur at any age, and can range from mild to severe, it is most common in people ages 40 and over.
“I’ve had light shakes for awhile now but it’s gotten a little worse,” Borowski said. “So when he told me that I didn’t have Parkinson’s it was such a huge relief. I was like, oh my God, this is just unbelievable! In that moment, my life turned around. I felt like I was given another chance.”
While Borowski had already planned on attending the U.S. Masters Swimming Summer National Championships held Aug. 2-6 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to help coach a friend who was competing, his renewed sense to live life to the fullest gave him the confidence to enter the event himself.
“I made the decision to go after I found out that I didn’t have Parkinson’s,” Borowski said. “I said; ‘Why not? Who cares, I should just go and have fun!’ When I started training for this three months ago, I couldn’t even kick when doing butterfly or do flip-turns. I still had a whole bunch of stuff going on with my knees and elbow. And I’m still not a 100-percent.”
Yet slowly but surely, Borowski found his way back into the lanes that earned him All American honors during his teenage and collegiate years, to setting the world, national and state records in the 50-meter freestyle and 50-meter butterfly as a 50-year-old.
Borowski did it again at age 55, setting world, national and state records in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle, and the 50-meter and 100-meter butterfly events, but that would become the last time that Borowski was in the pool.
Now, 15 years later and on a scant three months of actual swim training, Borowski plans to compete in three long course events at the USMS Summer National Championships in the men’s 70-74 age division: 50-meter freestyle, 50-meter butterfly and 100-meter freestyle.
“I’ve been lifting weights a lot because I know that I’m not going to get my aerobic base to where I want it to be, but I could build upon my strength,” he said. “But I have to be really careful with my rehab while I’m strength training. I’m in the gym at least 4-5 times per week, and almost everyday in the pool. I usually do about 3000 meters in the pool that is blended between free, fly, and varying intensities. I also train by myself so it’s been tough. And with the increase in exercise, I’ve lost 22-pounds but I feel great.
Borowski says that there will be over 1000 athletes at the swim meet competing in varying age groups with of course, high caliber competition coming from the men’s 70-74 age group.
“There’s a guy in my age group that won all four events in May - Andrew McPherson - he’s going to be there,” he said. “Looking at his times and looking where I am at now, I’m kind of doubtful that I’ll be able to beat him. And while there’s been so many challenges just to get here, it’s been really good. I’m going in with a whole different mindset.”
Borowski’s first competition at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center’s 50-meter indoor pool is the 100-meter freestyle scheduled for today at 12:55 p.m. He will continue with the 50-meter butterfly on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. followed by the 50-meter freestyle at 12:45 p.m.
While Borowski plans to just have fun and enjoy his renewed zest for competition, for those who don’t think they can be competitive at an older age, the legendary Aquatic King has some sound advice.
“Being competitive to me means focusing on self and not others and all the other outside variables that come along with a major competition. It’s okay to be nervous. I call it excited. The journey is 90 percent.”