Diann Uustal world-record master swimmer

Diann Uustal world-record master swimmer

October 14th, 2012 by Ron Bush in Sportlocal

Diann Uustal has an early morning swim practice at the North River YMCA on Thursday.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Swimmer Diann Uustal lives and works in Chattanooga and holds 38 U.S. records and 13 world records in her current and previous age groups.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Chattanooga resident Diann Uustal has set 13 age-group swimming world records, with all four competitive strokes included in distances from 50 to 200 meters.

That's right - 13 world records. Four of those were resets, so she holds nine.

She has set 38 United States Masters Swimming records in the women's 60-64 and 65-69 age divisions.

After not competing for 17 years, she set all 51 standards after an October 2008 accident in which all three hamstrings were ripped off her right leg and her left shoulder sustained a fracture and a wrecked rotator cuff. Ten of the world records and 27 of the American marks came in 2011, for which Uustal was named one of the world's top masters swimmers of the year.

This year has been a lost one competitively, with follow-up surgeries and rehabilitation from the old injury, but thanks to Dr. Brett Sanders and his colleagues at the Center for Sports Medicine, she is training for the Pan American Championships in Florida next March. Her first meet this year will be Nov. 9-10 in Sarasota, Fla.

Uustal, who just turned 66, clearly takes swimming seriously, but it's not life-and-death for her. Her profession is that.

Both a registered nurse and a doctor of education who had a post-doctorate fellowship at Georgetown University, the vivacious Uustal specializes in helping families deal with the imminent deaths of loved ones. She is a highly regarded counselor, mediator, teacher and speaker in the field of medical ethics. She is the president of Educational Resources in Healthcare, Inc., and has published nine books and spoken at conferences in all 50 states.

Uustal has been honored as "outstanding professor" at Arizona State University and has received prestigious alumni awards from two universities, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

She and her husband, Tom -- a BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee vice president -- own a home on Narragansett Bay in their native Rhode Island, where she spends every summer focusing on their grandchildren while getting in a lot of ocean swimming.

In Chattanooga she teaches swimming lessons at local YMCAs and works with triathletes.

"I love to teach people what it is like to feel fluid and comfortable and powerful in the water," she said.

She also swims four mornings a week and two other times weekly with other members of the River Rats masters team.

The early-morning schedule "orders my day perfectly," she said, noting that she's in her office "before most people leave for work, so my swimming doesn't interfere with my career or our home life."

Her husband is "remarkably supportive," she emphasized. They met while working as lifeguards during their college years, marrying after graduation, and "we're very much a water-based family." Both daughters were successful collegiate swimmers -- one at Virginia, the other at New Hampshire.

Diann herself had full-ride college offers after being the New England swimmer of the year her last three years of high school. She held all the state records in every event all four years of high school and as a junior became the first female ever chosen overall amateur athlete of the year in Rhode Island.

She was good enough to have realistic Olympic possibilities with serious training, but she wanted to study nursing, so she turned down the swimming grants.

"The hours involved in being a top-notch nationally ranked swimmer would not have permitted me to follow my dream of being a practitioner," she said.

The inspiration for her swimming came from her maternal grandmother, who won an open-water race on the same day she took Diann to her first meet.

"She was a psych-mental health nurse and a great open water swimmer," Uustal said. "She swam before women were 'allowed' to participate in many events. She bound her breasts, swam in the old-fashioned men's high-top suits and beat the men easily.

"She was a stunning woman - way ahead of her time. She was just phenomenal."

Earning similar accolades herself, Uustal said she has been "blessed" by God with her career and her life, and swimming has enhanced both.

"I am freer in the water than anywhere on land. I believe I was designed for the water," she said. "I have a relentless but happy discipline and work ethic, and I focus on one workout at a time with very specific goals.

"I never race against an individual per se. It's me against what's possible for me and against the clock. I'm just trying to do the best I can with what gifts I've been given."

On March 19, 2011, Uustal broke three 65-69 women's backstroke records set a year earlier by Margit Ohlsson of Sweden. Ohlsson reset the 100 and 200 records six months later, only to have Uustal break them again that December.

"You two are having a trans-Atlantic slugfest that makes Ali-Frazier look like a game of pattycake," Judd Jones of Knoxville wrote to Uustal in a set of notes about all her world records. "As a fan of the sport, it is riveting to watch."

Jones is a molecular engineer who Uustal said has taught her "so much about competitive swimming."

Chattanooga's River Rats have been tremendous helps also.

"Each person in the group is so disciplined and yet fun-loving, serious and professionally accomplished," Uustal said. "We are definitely what some folks would call over-achievers and maybe even over-chlorinated.

"I wouldn't be as fast without swimming with them."

Stan Corcoran, the Rats' head coach, said the inspiration goes both ways.

"Diann has had some back luck with injuries, but through all that she just keeps chugging away," Corcoran said. "She's tough, and she works hard. She's always looking for ways to get faster.

"As many records as she's broken, she's been very close to a whole slew of others."