Swimming Lesson

By Mary Jo Curtis / November / December 2005
April 27th, 2007

At 91, Sara Toney has been forced to make an occasional concession to age. For more than fifteen years she's been teaching water aerobics to other retired women, and last year she reluctantly eliminated part of her swim routine.

"I can still do everything," she said, "but my doctor advised me to stop diving off the springboard."

Toney has spent much of her life in and around the water. When she was still a baby, her father propped her on a pillow to teach her the strokes she later mastered during the family's summers in Maine, Washington State, and Massachusetts. By the time she entered Brown to study history, Toney was swimming competitively; in her junior and senior years she captained the Pembroke swim team.

"We weren't allowed to swim in the men's pool, so we swam at the Plantations Club," said Toney, who recalls competing "mostly freestyle" against teams from Radcliffe, Mount Holyoke, and Wheaton.

Following her graduation, Toney worked as a receptionist at Brown - until President Henry Wriston hired her as his secretary. "He discovered I was a Brown graduate and Phi Beta Kappa and decided I had brains," she said, laughing. "I worked on the fourth floor of University Hall, and he'd get off the elevator singing Gilbert and Sullivan," she recalled.

Toney and her husband, George, lived in Gloucester, Massachusetts, for several years before settling permanently in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1953 with their two children. Once again, Toney found work as a secretary. Then the National Endowment for the Humanities hired her and she spent the last twelve years of her career writing and editing its newsletter. "It was my first professional job," she recalled. "I'd always been a secretary - that's what women did in my day. That was a wonderful way to end my career."

After retiring in 1980, Toney took up dance aerobics, yoga, and walking - and began spending more time at the pool of her family's club. She joined a water aerobics class, then volunteered to take over when the instructor left. Today she still walks a mile daily and, three times a week during the summer, she leads a dozen women in water exercises, swimming, and "sitting in the sun to talk."

"Water aerobics are healthy because you don't have to support your weight," said Toney. "We're not trying to make ourselves into athletes; we're just trying to stay flexible and strong. It's the only way to be."

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November / December 2005