- Associated Press - Sunday, August 3, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A few months ago, Margaret Buckendorf, then 97, told her daughters she wanted to learn to swim.

At her first lesson, the great-grandmother blew bubbles and opened her eyes under water, pleasantly surprised by how easy it was, the Lincoln Journal Star reported (https://bit.ly/1nX0O71 ).

Before she dried off for the day, she pointed to the deep end of the indoor pool on Pioneers Boulevard.

She had just one question: When will I get to go down the slide?

Everyone laughed.

Everyone, except Margaret.

A Boy Scout saved Margaret from drowning in a lake near her family’s farm in the Sandhills when Margaret was 11 and had waded out too far with friends.

She’d vowed to learn to swim, but life got in the way.

She married and raised four daughters, and after her first husband died suddenly at 49, she ran the Rock County Leader in Bassett on her own, selling ads and writing a weekly column she called “Just Margaret.”

Eventually, she married a widowed man with three daughters of his own.

Margaret and Louie moved to Lincoln in the 1960s and later retired to Arkansas, where Margaret learned to water-ski at 55, and kept it up until her arms were too weak to pull herself into the boat.

Her grandchildren were surprised to learn the woman who taught them to ski couldn’t swim.

But not terribly surprised she wanted to try something new.

Margaret has always had a spirit of adventure. One that led her to ask for a pack of cigarettes for her 95th birthday, because she’d always wanted to give smoking a try. (She got two packs and smoked a menthol each morning for 40 days.)

But Louie died in November, and when he was sick she had lost her spark.

This spring, her strength and spark returned. She began exercising faithfully at her apartment in Gramercy Hill and, shortly before her first swimming lesson, she went to see her doctor.

“I think I’m getting younger,” she told him.

Margaret loves her swimming lessons.

And her family loves watching her learn to swim.

On Margaret’s 98th birthday, a gang of relatives arrived at Swimtastic Swim School: two of her daughters, a son-in-law, a daughter’s friend, a granddaughter and two great-granddaughters.

Her groupies.

“I told everyone at work about the swimming thing,” said 20-year-old Makayla Ross. “They all think you’re the bee’s knees.”

Margaret looks at her funny.

“They think you’re awesome, Grandma!”

Since her first dip in the pool, Margaret has learned to float and to swim on her back, gently waving her arms and legs, and she can also swim freestyle.

“But I can’t turn my neck.”

It’s too stiff, she explained, which means she can’t breathe as she goes.

“Oh, but she can hold her breath a long way,” said her daughter Kay Fredeen, who drove up from Kansas City to watch.

Margaret plans to continue her lessons, after taking August off to visit family and catch up with friends, said another daughter Peggy Wilkinson.

But on July 22, she walks across the wet cement toward her birthday wish. Her swim teacher, Lisa Miller, offers to take her arm.

No, says Margaret.

She repeats herself, as if Lisa is hard of hearing: “No. No. No. I’m fine.”

She stands at the bottom of the slide, nine steps to the top. A second instructor tells her to hold onto the railing.

“I know enough to hang on,” she says. “I’m old, not senile.”

Her family stands alongside the pool, holding cameras and pointing cellphones toward the sturdy, strong-willed woman in the flowered bathing suit.

Four swim instructors flank the slide, like an honor guard in Speedos.

In a few seconds, Margaret stands at the top, struggling to sit without slipping. Eventually, she does.

She scootches forward. Then she scootches again. You can hear the squeak of her swimsuit, sticking to the plastic.

Margaret looks perturbed.

The slide is too dry — Lisa turned the water off so Margaret won’t rocket into the pool. It worked too well.

Someone dips a towel in the water and wrings it out onto the plastic.

Margaret scootches again.

Wave, Grandma, a voice yells.

Margaret waves.

More water, another scootch, and she’s off.

Lisa is there when the birthday girl emerges to the sound of cheers and shouts.

Margaret blinks the water out of her eyes. She’s smiling. It was fun.


It wasn’t fast enough, and she wants to go again.

And she does, this time with the water running and Margaret speeding downhill, full of life at 98.


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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