Tiburon man, 65, overcomes heart, lung problems to nab national swimming titles
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Sept. 14, 2016, edition of The Ark. It earned first place for Best Sports Feature Story in the National Newspaper Association’s 2017 Better Newspapers contest and an honorable mention for Sports Feature Story in the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s 2016 Better Newspapers Contest.
By MATTHEW HOSE
Tiburon resident Tate Holt faced two disadvantages as he stepped onto the starting block for his first swim meet in 35 years.
He was afraid his goggles were going to fall off when he jumped in the pool. As a swimmer in the 1960s and ’70s, he had never worn goggles during a meet.
And, for all intents and purposes, Holt was swimming with only one lung.
In 2007 Holt, who once swam with some of the sport’s legends at Indiana University, jumped back into competitive swimming after enduring five procedures to correct an irregular heartbeat, multiple surgeries to remove scar tissue and procedures to have two stents placed into his pulmonary veins.
His results in the water since then have been breathtaking.
A few weeks ago, the 65-year-old capped his return to the sport with a series of victories at the U.S. Masters Swimming Summer National Championship, held Aug. 17–21 in Gresham, Ore. Holt won both the 50- and 100-meter men’s individual freestyle races in the 65–69 age group.
Holt’s 50-meter time of 27.41 seconds was the fifth-fastest time ever recorded among world masters swimmers in that age group, while his 100-meter time of 1:02.28 was the fourth-fastest.
He also placed third among males in his age group in the 50-meter butterfly, second in a men’s 200-meter freestyle relay and third in a men’s 200-meter medley relay.
“I’m so proud of him,” says his wife, Lindsay Holt. “He works so hard, and he really had a decade of bad heart problems, and to come back from that and do what he’s done is miraculous.”
For the past two years, the Holts have lived on Tower Point Lane in Tiburon, but Tate isn’t new to the area.
Holt grew up in Belvedere, where he attended the Belvedere School and swam for the Tiburon Peninsula Club.
After spending his high school years in Palos Verdes, Holt was recruited to Indiana University, where he swam under the tutelage of one of the sport’s legendary innovators, James “Doc” Counsilman, and alongside nine-time Olympic gold medalist Mark Spitz.
“I was the only guy in my class who did not make an Olympic team,” Holt says. “I was very good, but I was not world class.”
He returned to the Bay Area after college in the early 1970s, where he put swimming on hold as he started his career and raised a family.
Then, in the late 1990s, his health issues began.
He developed a cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, and, over the course of several years, had five procedures to correct it. Those procedures left him with scar tissue in several arteries. In 2005, a doctor told him one of his lungs had nearly 100 percent blockage from scar tissue, and the other wasn’t in much better shape.
He quickly had to have two stents put into his pulmonary veins to get enough oxygen through his body to allow him to breathe normally.
“It fixed the problems, but I only have sort of half the lung capacity of normal people,” Holt says.
Nevertheless, after he had the stents put in, he decided to make a change.
“The least I could do was get back in shape,” Holt says.
In 2007, Holt started swimming again at the Tamalpais Aquatic Masters swim club, which practices at the Marin Academy in San Rafael.
But, his condition made it impossible for him to race long distances — which was just fine with him.
“I’ve always been fast, and I didn’t like to compete in longer distance,” Holt says. “Now I have a medical reason that I can’t.”
In the Tamalpais club, he quickly caught the notice of some high-caliber swimmers, including Laura Val, a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame who holds 350 world records.
Val, a nurse who has worked with people with lung issues, says it is a testament to Holt’s goal-driven personality and competitive spirit that he was able to get to the position he’s in now.
“It takes time, and it takes patience and a lot of work to build up that lung capacity,” Val says. “The fact that he has stuck to it and has improved … is just a testament to his hard work and his amazing attitude about it.”
Part of Holt’s success comes from knowing his limitations. Because he gets short of breath, Holt only practices 20–30 minutes every morning and swims much shorter distances when practicing than others.
But in some ways, Holt says his lung condition has helped him improve in the water.
“I think what I’ve learned how to do is have really good breath control,” Holt says.
Val says Holt is a thrilling swimmer to watch. He’s not fast starting off the block, and his turns are very slow — two of the areas in which short-distance swimmers typically need to excel.
But he makes up for it with a strong, fast stroke.
“He’s playing catch-up a lot, which is really fun to watch,” Val says.
The last 15
Holt knew after several years back in the water, he was swimming fast enough to win the 50-meter freestyle race at the national championship in Oregon this year.
“I knew I had done all the work, and I was in the best shape I could be in,” Holt says.
When he won that event, he attributed his victory to simply swimming the way he was capable of.
But the 100-meter freestyle race, which he considers his long-distance race, was a taller task for Holt. Because of his lung capacity, the end of that race can be excruciating.
“I can’t describe how painful the last 15 meters are, because there’s nothing there,” Holt says.
For Lindsay Holt, that 100-meter swim can be tough to watch.
“It’s not that I get nervous when he swims, but I’m happy when it’s over,” Lindsay says. “Especially the 100, that takes it out of him.”
Nonetheless, Holt was confident that he could be victorious in the 100-meter freestyle race on Aug. 21, even after competing in two 50-meter butterfly races earlier that day.
“I knew I had enough speed to go out fast, so it was just count the breaths, count the strokes going down, swim the race the way I wanted to, and then hold on at the end, basically,” Holt says.
With his victories at the U.S. Masters now behind him, Holt will next travel with the Tamalpais Aquatic Masters team to the FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, in July 2017. There, the squad of about 15 Bay Area swimmers will compete not against other swim clubs, but against other countries.
Reporter Matthew Hose covers the city of Belvedere, as well as crime, courts and public safety issues on the Tiburon Peninsula. Reach him at 415–944–4627 and on Twitter at @matt_hose.