Queen of the Pool: Marylee Banyard is swimming royalty

Banyard recently won five gold medals and a silver at the 55-plus B.C. Games.

Marylee Banyard

She would rather not speak about her medals.

Nor will she admit to being all that good. In fact, if she’s being honest, Marylee Banyard prefers to just dive into the pool and away from any attention.

“I’m okay, but I’m not a jock,” says Banyard. “I’m not an Olympic swimmer by any means whatsoever.”

Maybe not, but Banyard can swim faster with two bad hips and a sore elbow than people decades younger than she is. The 81-year-old Nelson swimmer won five gold medals and a silver at the 55-plus B.C. Games, which were held last month in Coquitlam.

Banyard has been competing at the Games since 1998 with the Cocoons, a seniors swimming group that includes athletes from around the West Kootenay. She never swam competitively in her youth but, once she retired, winning became a byproduct of a desire to stay healthy.

So Banyard is in the water at 6 a.m. three times a week — she’ll swim even more now that the Nelson pool is re-opening (“Oh it’s been horrible. Horrible!”) — because that’s what keeps her feeling young.

“When I was working, my stress release was I would go for walks. Or I would do some work in the garden,” she says. “So although I’m not a jock in any way like that, my body doesn’t feel good if I don’t exercise. I think that that is my only training for sport, so I’m very thankful for that.”

Banyard is from Zambia originally. Her grandfather was a pioneer to the country in the early 20th century, and she learned to swim in the creeks and rivers near her parents’ maize and cattle farm.

Swimming was Banyard’s only way to exercise. She was born with dysplasia in both hips, which makes movement difficult. At her boarding school, which emphasized athletics, she could choose to focus on either tennis, field hockey or swimming.

Of course, that wasn’t much of a choice at all. Yet in the water, Banyard found a way to overcome her disability.

“Walking is difficult,” says Banyard, who has had both hips replaced. “But when you get into the pool then you have total freedom. I think a lot of people who have had hip replacements would tell you that. In the water, you’re free, because you don’t have that gravity to pull you down.”

When Zambia gained independence in 1964, Banyard’s then-husband was demoted from his government post and the family decided to move. They settled on Canada because her husband had spent time in the country as a child. But Banyard was happy with the decision. She’d read books by naturalist writer William J. Long in her youth, and his descriptions of wildlife in the north appealed to her.

The family initially moved in 1966, but had their immigration denied. They returned to live in South Africa before finally being accepted into Canada in 1974. The family of six moved to Creston, and three years later uprooted to Nelson so Banyard could attend Notre Dame University.

“I was just so thankful for it,” says Banyard. “We came with nothing. My husband and I graduated from high school, that was all. We had $2,500. That was all, and Canada accepted us.”

She taught English as a second language until retiring in ’98. That’s when she joined the Cocoons and dragged along her teaching colleague June Johnston.

“She said to me, ‘Oh June, don’t wait until you’re 55. Start swimming now,'” says Johnston, who also won a gold medal at the Games. “So I started to go out and swim with her and I could hardly swim at that point. She’s been very encouraging to myself and other people to get out there and be active past 55.”

Banyard is exceptional in the pool for how many disciplines she can swim. In Coquitlam she won two butterfly races, an individual medley and a freestyle. She only avoids the breaststroke, which relies on the legs to generate power.

But it’s the butterfly that sets Banyard apart.

“It’s a real challenging stroke,” said Johnston. “You’ve got to be very careful. You could injure yourself. A young person is okay, but an older person taking it up, you have to be careful. I’m in awe of anyone who does it.”

Banyard jokes her success in butterfly has started a trend amongst her fellow swimmers. “I think people saw me and sort of thought, ‘Well, if that old bat can swim fly, so can I.'”

Even though medals disinterest her, Banyard enjoys going to competitions. They keep her from getting lazy in the pool, which in turn keeps her healthy.

She also doesn’t feel any stress during an event. Instead, she ignores the other swimmers and just focuses on the little things like her stroke or executing the turn.

“You just concentrate more on the beauty of it and the way you do it,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing to do. It’s a very graceful thing. Swimming is very graceful.”

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