Ruben Berg, was a Senior Olympian who died Monday in a community that loved him – Ecumen’s Parmly Lifepointes. Many of us were introduced to Ruben in 2004 when Warren Wolfe of the Minneapolis Star Tribune profiled him. As Warren shares in the story below, Ruben didn’t let getting cut from his high school swim team hold him back. Ruben began competitive swimming again at age 79, going on to win more than 250 medals. Here’s to Ruben: a role model for all of us in aging gracefully.
Ruben Berg’s Story . . . . by Warren Wolfe, Minneapolis Star Tribune
His big, work-roughened hands pulling his hefty frame through the water, Ruben Berg touched the pool’s edge, shouted out "four," and switched to a side stroke to start his fifth 50-yard lap.
"I’ve slowed down a lot since my heart bypass surgery back in 1999," Berg said after his 400-yard workout, scrunching his craggy face as he sought the right words.
At age 91, he uses a walker to trudge from the dressing room to the pool and his swimming strokes have lost some power. But he remains an intense competitor.
Since his first swimming meet in 1991 when he was 79, the former auto mechanic who washed out of his high school swim team has won 253 medals – nine this year.
At the Minnesota Masters swim meet last month in Minneapolis, Berg took 5 minutes and 41 seconds to cover 100 meters with his backstroke.
He has been among the top 10 swimmers in his age class – now age 90 to 94 – in the national Masters Swimming Organization since 1996 and is the oldest Minnesotan in the program.
"Sounds impressive, huh?" he said after emerging from the pool sporting his black-and-orange competition "dress-up" swimsuit. "But at my age, well, most of the competition is dead."
‘Learned on the job’
Berg, who lives at Point Pleasant Heights senior community in Chisago City, has been an avid swimmer since childhood. He grew up in St. Paul near Berg Auto Repair on Selby Avenue and took over the business from his dad. He passed it on to his son before the shop closed.
A self-taught swimmer, Berg was cut from his Mechanic Arts High School swim team because "I didn’t know how to do the strokes right. Heck, I still don’t do the backstroke the way you’re supposed to, one arm back at a time. Mostly I’ve learned on the job."
He suffered a stroke in 1986, and therapy has restored some strength to his speech, right leg, arm and hand. But at his daughter’s suggestion, he took up competitive swimming in 1991 in Arizona, where he and his late wife, Clarice, spent their winters.
"I tell my daughter, Barbara, it’s her fault I’m still alive," Berg said. "I don’t think swimming will keep you young, but it keeps your joints moving and your heart ticking."
Ten years ago, he started volunteering four hours a month at the Hazelden treatment center, 7 miles up the road, in part so he could use its pool for his workouts. He works in the mailroom and occasionally conducts tours, as he did last week. Hazelden recently honored him as its oldest volunteer.
Usually, Berg is not big on spectator sports. "Mostly I’d rather do than watch," he said. "I mean, what’s the point?"
But he’s made an exception for the Olympic Games in Athens. For the past week, Berg has been glued to his television between his twice-weekly swims, watching the athletes compete.
"This morning I was up at 5 to watch the American women’s basketball team," he said Friday before his swim. "Have you seen the muscles on those athletes? It’s almost unbelievable, even the women. We’re all pikers compared to them. I don’t know anybody with muscles like even the table-tennis players have."
At times, Berg said, he is a little sad that his muscles won’t carry him as fast or as far as they used to.
"Well, I don’t work out with weights like I used to, but even so, I can’t do the crawl anymore and my speed is pretty much in low gear," he said.
"But the thing I have to remind myself is that when I started swimming competitively in 1991 I’d swim 25 meters and then die. Then I built up my strength so I could do 50 meters before I died.
"So when I do 400 yards twice a week, I guess that’s OK."
His next Masters swim meet will be in April, right before his 92nd birthday, at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
"I’ll probably win something because I may be the only one in the 90-94 class," he said.
"To be honest, I like the medals. I like winning. But really, I just do this for my health now, so I can keep moving," he said.
"If somebody beats me, that’ll be OK. Hell, now I’m happy just to be upright."