Swimming for her life at National Senior Games in Birmingham

Swimming for her life at National Senior Games in Birmingham
Terril McBride's greatest competition is not in the swimming lanes next to her. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr. / Alabama NewsCenter)

Terril McBride was breathing hard as she climbed out of the pool at Birmingham CrossPlex Tuesday afternoon.

The 66-year-old finished third in her heat and sixth overall in the women’s age 60-69 division 50-yard freestyle of the National Senior Games. Her competitive spirit aside, her beaming smile made it clear that she bore no regrets for not outracing five of her 39 fellow senior swimmers.

Especially since they are not the opponent she is trying hardest to hold at bay.

McBride has idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a degenerative lung disease that is fatal. She’s lost her father and a brother to the disease and another brother has it as well.

“Normal lifespan with that is 3 to 5 years,” said McBride, who spends her summers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and her winters in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, about 14 miles south of Daytona Beach.

“I was diagnosed two years ago,” she said, “so I’m doing pretty well.”

Some might idly wait for death to come calling. Instead, McBride is in Birmingham, bidding for another medal or ribbon this afternoon in the 50-yard butterfly.

Why does she do it?

“Because it’s part of living, and I’m all for living,” she said. “I’m not for dying. I’m getting busy living.”

The mother of three boys and one girl –  “two of them I gave birth to and two of them I acquired” – swam when she was much younger.

“Swimming is pretty much the only sport that I’ve ever done,” she said. “For recreation, I ride a bike and I walk. As far as competing, it’s just been swimming. I started when I was 7 and swam until I was 15. I stopped and then I picked it up again, probably when I was about 60 years old.”

When she resumed swimming, she did that once a week. IPF made it a daily activity.

“My lungs want to shrink and scar until eventually you just asphyxiate,” she said. “You can’t get enough air to live. I figured that swimming – because you have to expand your lungs so much to swim – that that would make them stretch out all the time, every day. I swim every day. And I feel better when I swim.”

IPF is just one of McBride’s maladies. That diagnosis came in 2015. The year before, she had open heart surgery; last year she had two minor strokes.

“I can only do sprints,” the retired nurse practitioner said. “I just don’t have the lung capacity to stay in there for a lot of lengths.”

Terril McBride is swimming for her life in the National Senior Games in Birmingham from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

McBride says that butterfly is a tougher stroke.

“It’s hard,” she said. “I’m really fast for the first length. I try to take it easy in the first one so I have something left for the second one. I wish they had a 25-yard event. I could win those.”

But McBride and her 68-year-old husband, Ed Unks, make no excuses and don’t ask why.

The couple got married in 2001. “We’ve been together since 1999,” she said.

The retired high school math teacher helps his wife keep her condition in perspective.

“My husband said today this isn’t about winning or medaling,” she recounted. “’You’re lucky to be here. You’re lucky that you qualified to be in this. Just have fun with it.’

“But I’m competitive,” McBride added. “I really like to do well.”


Editor’s note: Terril McBride earned a silver medal in the 50-yard butterfly event after this article was published.

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