As a child, Randy Russell expected to win.
If he was in a swim meet, more likely than not he fulfilled that expectation. He said he recorded 26 state championships along with five state records as a junior swimmer to help foster that certain confidence.
Both he and his parents, who both served as his swim coaches during his adolescence, saw enough potential in the young swimmer to envision dreams of Russell one day swimming in the Olympic Games. This summer, now at age 57, the three were together again as Russell finally achieved the gold medal that eluded him as a young man.
Russell competed in this year's National Senior Games (NSG) or "Senior Olympics" held June 14-25 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he finished with one gold medal, two bronze, one fourth-place finish and two fifth-place finishes. Russell won gold in the 50-yard freestyle for the 55-59 age group, finishing with a time of 25.37, and said the experience of standing atop the podium was a moment he won't soon forget.
"It was really a lot of fun because they got to relive some of those memories in the pool," Russell said. "It was pretty amazing to be able to do it. I felt very blessed."
Russell's parents, Lowell and Carol Russell, along with Russell's wife, Joni, were in the stands cheering as the Whitfield County ident raced through the water at the West Mesa Aquatic Center. For Carol Russell, watching her son in the water brought back the same emotions she felt more than 40 years ago.
"We've been watching him swim since he was 5 years old," Carol Russell said. "We were so proud of him for what he did out there. He was such a good swimmer when he was a little guy. It was really exciting, and as an old woman, I was screaming and jumping up and down like any mother would do."
According to Lowell Russell, his son was one of the top age group swimmers in the state of Georgia as a young man, but at the age of 14 was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which for a short time halted his ability to train in the pool. Any progress Randy gained on his times in the pool between the ages of 15-18 required determination above and beyond the norm, according to his father. Russell regained his strength, however, and walked on to the swim team at the University of Georgia where he lettered his freshman year under the men's coach Pete Scholle, as well as legendary Bulldogs swimming coach Jack Bauerle. After only one season swimming collegiately, Russell gave up competitive swimming to focus on his academics.
That was in 1980, and beyond a few coaches relays while a swim coach for seven different swim teams since his college years, Russell did not swim competitively again until this past year.
"It was quite something, what he did out there in Albuquerque," Lowell Russell said. "It was something we had actually anticipated years ago but never came to fruition. It was a carryover from his younger days, and swimming has always been in his blood."
The road back to competitive swimming came after winning a trial membership to the Bradley Wellness Center at last year's Whitfield Healthcare Foundation Golf Classic. Russell began to once again test his limits in the pool, and after an acquaintance introduced the idea of the NSG, Russell was soon thereafter swimming upwards of 2,500 yards at an average practice. After a little bit of research into what times he would need to reach to qualify for the NSG, Russell quickly realized he had a real shot at placing nationally.
"When I was younger I was swimming 5,000 to 6,000 yards a practice, twice a day," Russell said. "When I started back training I was swimming between 2,000 and 3,000 yards per practice so I wasn't close to what I used to do. Once I looked at the time for the Chattanooga event I thought, 'Wow, this is nothing.' And when I looked at the qualifying times (needed to reach the NSG) I thought, 'Well, shoot I could do this.'"
A district Senior Olympics competition in Chattanooga this past October, along with a state qualifier, was all that stood between Russell and reaching the NSG. Russell won five gold medals in Chattanooga, and from there travelled to Clearwater, Florida, to compete in the Florida Senior Games. To compete at the NSG, swimmers must qualify at the state level, and because the Georgia Golden Olympics -- Georgia's version of the state senior games -- had already passed for 2018, Russell was entered into the Florida Senior Games where he won four gold medals, two silver medals and placed fourth in two other races. More importantly, he hit the times needed to swim against the best in the country this summer in New Mexico.
Starting in December, Russell dedicated himself to a nearly full-time practice schedule to prepare for this summer. He said this calendar year he's swam more than 200 miles in the pool -- on average between one and a half to two miles each day -- and leading up to the event this summer he said there was rarely a day he wasn't in the pool, some days twice.
Russell swam in four individual races and two relays in Albuquerque. Although he qualified for six individual races, he scratched himself out of two to save energy. The races at the event occur rapid fire, with one beginning seconds after the previous one finishes. Russell said he would have liked to perform better in the 50-yard butterfly, where he finished in fifth place with a time of 28.76, but overall was more than pleased with how the competition finished.
"You never know who is going to show up at these," Russell said. "Sometimes there are guys out there who are former Olympians. But I knew I still had the speed, I just didn't have the endurance."
Russell now works as a certified financial planner for AIG Retirement Services. He was the president of the Chattanooga Area Swim League in 2015 and is his free time now he coaches masters swimming at the Calhoun Aquatic Center. Masters swimming is organized competitive swimming for adults, and Russell swims alongside those he coaches in Calhoun. He still swims laps at Bradley Wellness Center as well, and says he's often asked by those who see him what exactly he's training for.
The National Senior Games are every two years, with the next one in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the summer of 2021. Russell is undecided on whether he will continue to compete nationally.
"I haven't decided yet, and that's where I have to decide if I want to continue to press," Russell said.
Lowell and Carol Russell celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary while in Albuquerque, and both said if their son continues to swim competitively they will try to attend. For a family whose lives once revolved around swimming -- while Randy was growing up Lowell Russell would not entertain jobs where a swim team didn't exist -- Russel's achievements this summer brought a sense of fulfillment to a son his parents. Lowell Russell said he could see the same pride on his son's face that he saw when Randy was young, and when asked to predict whether his son would be in Fort Lauderdale in two years Lowell Russell was straight to the point.
"Yes, I think he will be there next time," Lowell Russell said. "We saw the old flame again. We didn't realize we'd see it. To see him do what he did was a dream of ours from long ago that came true at that meet in Albuquerque.
"Randy always had the killer instinct as a swimmer. He's always felt that if he was going to do something he was gonna try to be the best at it. He's a compassionate person as well, and we saw that back when he was doing age group swimming. He had Olympic dreams back when he was 12 years old, and he may slow down but he's going to keep on swimming."