Last month Nathan Stooke embraced a part of his life he thought he had left behind.
Stooke, who is the CEO of Wisper Internet Solutions and a former member of the U.S. Mens National Swimming Team, and his wife Kirsty travelled to Russia to compete in the Fina World Masters Championship.
“My wife and I are both swimmers. I was on the US Men’s National Team for three years and so I’d told my kids what it was like to go to an elite event. I’d told them what it was like and what I’d used to do. We found out about a year ago that the Masters World Championship was going to be held in Russia, and I’ve always wanted to go to Russia,” said Nathan.
After talking it over, he and his wife, Kirsty, decided they were going to try out and attempt to compete in the Fina World Masters Championships, held this past August in Kazan, Russia. The World Championships are like the Olympics in a non-Olympic year. Normally, the Elite World Championships are held one year and the Masters held the next. This year though, the two events were held together for the first time, giving Nathan the elite event he’d always wanted to take his kids to.
“We got to stay in the Athlete’s Village, we got to eat with the athletes, literally sit on the bus next to a gold medal winner, maybe walk into the pool with a world record holder and great international swimmers. And for our kids it was amazing,” he said.
However, deciding to try and compete at the Masters was the easy part. Just getting permission to go to Russia was a painstaking task.
“Russia is an invite only country. You literally have to be invited. And so I went through an immense amount of work to get our visas, and they said that it was an easy process. They told us they had streamlined the process for the athletes because they had 6,000 of them coming, but it wasn’t easy at all,” said Nathan.
From there Nathan and Kirsty had to train to get fast enough to meet the cut off time. To compete in the Masters, a swimmer must be faster than a specified time. If someone can swim fast enough, they can compete. There are age categories, however the oldest people swimming were 98 years old.
“We trained for about six or seven months. Unfortunately, you get done with your swimming career, be it college or in my case the national team, and you don’t want to touch a pool ever again because you spent five hours a day training. Or you say, yeah, I’m going to keep training because I like swimming, but not as much. Then you get married, get a job that takes up time, have kids, and lo and behold you haven’t really worked out in 15 years. So it was like ‘I think I can still swim, let me try’,” said Nathan.
“I was, in my group, the fastest out of shape person. The highest place I got was sixth. The top five guys were ripped and you could tell they hadn’t stopped training after their collegiate or olympic careers. And more power to them, I’m glad they were able to do that.”
Nathan said he made fast friends with other swimmers in his age category.
“We got to know one another pretty well. What else do you have to do when you’re sitting there? ‘Hey do you speak english? I speak english!’ You sit and converse and get to know one another. I met a guy from Greece who said he’d been retired for 15 years and just started training six months ago, which was just like me. We’d compete and he’d out touch me in one race and I’d out touch him in another.”
About 3,000 swimmers took part in the Masters event. Typically though the Masters can attract between 6,000 and 7,000 swimmers. Nathan believes the lower attendance is due to Russia being more difficult to get to. He also attributes some of the drop to the event being so soon after the last Masters event in Montreal last year.
“Some people may have spent all of their vacation time or money going to Montreal and needed to skip Russia. So it was lower in attendance, but we didn’t care. It was awesome to go,” he said.
Nathan has wanted to visit Russia since he was a boy paying attention to his father’s work as an Air Force intelligence officer.
“My dad was in the Air Force, which is why we live around here. He was stationed at Scott Air Force Base. I had all of the books about the Soviet Union and was fascinated by them and their military presence. I always had an idea about Russia and the Soviet Union in my mind. As hard as it was for us to get our visas, I feared we’d all be over there, discover I hadn’t filled something out right and then ‘BAM!’ be put in the slammer. I had a weird feeling. But then when we got there and the red carpet was rolled out. People were the nicest they could be.”
Talking to the Russian people was illuminating for Nathan, educating him about he realities of the Soviet regime.
“When we went on a walking tour we had two guides, a younger lady and a slightly older lady. After talking to them we realized the Russian people hated the Soviet regime as much or more than we did. Russia has a thousand year history… way longer than the U.S… and the Soviet regime was only 70 years of it. It was really cool to see that because I grew up military and in the day and age I grew up in, we learned the Soviet Union is bad. The Russian people are bad. But then we got there and learned they’re not bad. They look at the Soviet regime as one part of their long history,” he said.
The older guide who took the Stooke family on a driving tour grew up in a four bedroom apartment. Her family had one room and three other families had the other three rooms, and then they shared a bathroom and half sized kitchen. She told Nathan that was the Soviet ideology of equal. She told him about how growing up in it, it was obvious that it wasn’t equal. She said everything the Soviets were portraying was the opposite of what was going on.
Another tour guide was a young lady the family had was a millennial. She didn’t grow up under Soviet control and had only known life after they’d fallen.
“She kept saying ‘We don’t have any use for them. We’re not them. They don’t define us, we don’t believe in what they believe, and we don’t have any use for them.’ There is still a soviet party but they’re not nearly as big as they used to be,” Nathan said.
Reflecting back, its obvious Nathan had a wonderful time in Russia. But it also seems he had a great time reconnecting to his past as a swimmer. He said he plans to continue to train and swim in two years when the event takes place in Budapest and then in four years in South Korea. He has been keeping in touch with his new friends from his age group at this year’s Masters.
“A lot of us can’t wait for Budapest and we’re emailing back and forth encouraging one another to stay with it and keep training. This event travels all over. I love to travel and what is a better excuse,” Nathan said.