POULSBO — When Poulsbo resident Bernice Phillips gets in the pool, she doesn’t like to lose. In fact, she doesn’t like anything less than a first place finish.
No one really knew, however, how much she disliked losing when she joined the U.S. Master’s swimmers in January 2003. But after breaking eight records, garnering countless first places and even winning a national championship in her 75-79 age division in less than two years of competitive training, it’s safe to say she’s caused quite the ripple.
“It’s phenomenal to come from not swimming at all to totally throwing herself into championship swimming,” said Darla Smith, one of Phillips’ trainers at the North Kitsap Community Pool. “She’s got the same drive and goals as the Olympic swimmers here.”
The memory of when Phillips first came out to swim is fresh in her mind — after all, it was only a year and a half ago.
“When I entered the pool (the first time) I could only swim half a lap,” she said.
Phillips joined the U.S. Masters Swimmers and the Bainbridge Aquatics Masters (BAM) in early 2003 on an invitation from the team’s coach, Lynn Wells.
“I wanted to see if I could even dog paddle,” she said of her first experience.
What ensued was probably Phillips’ least proud moment in the pool.
“I could barely swim a quarter of a lap without complete fatigue,” she said.
But Phillips was not about to quit her newfound sport — in fact, the experience pushed her to try harder. Her training regimen became fierce: seven days a week in the pool, divvying her time between the Bainbridge and North Kitsap pools. She said her work ethic was — and is — such because to settle for anything less than first place is a disappointment.
“No matter what you’re training or studying for, to come in first place is the ultimate goal,” she said. “I compete because I love swimming and it’s a goal to strive for.”
Two months after beginning her training, Phillips received a surprise from coach Wells.
“(She) said, ‘Bernice, I want you to register for the meet in Federal Way,’” Phillips recalled. “I laughed and said, ‘OK. What do I have to lose? I’ll do it for fun.’”
So Phillips signed up for the 75- to 79-year-old category at Federal Way’s Weyerhauser Aquatic Center’s zone competition, where she competed against swimmers from five Western states.
After training for less than two months, she took first place in each of the three swims she entered at the event. From then on, she knew she could compete with anyone in her age group, at any given level.
“I’ve entered just about every meet that’s come along since,” Phillips said.
Phillips isn’t just winning first place at events she’s entered over the past year — she’s also breaking records. She holds the fastest times in the Pacific Northwest in five events (the 50- and 100-meter backstroke, the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and the 1,500-meter freestyle) and two in the five-state zone competition (the 50- and 100-meter backstroke).
In November 2003, she placed in the top 10 in the nation in her age bracket at only her third meet in Port Orchard.
This last year, she added yet another milestone to a growing list — winning a national championship in Indianapolis, Ind. April 22-25 for a 55.07 in the 50-meter freestyle.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Phillips said of the experience. “I couldn’t believe that I came away as a gold medal national champion.”
Dominating in the 75-79 age bracket, Phillips said she admits that from time to time she comes in at under the top spot. Such was the case at April’s zone competition in Federal Way, Phillips said.
“I took a horrible second place,” she commented.
Next up for Phillips is the Huntsman World Seniors Games held in St. George, Utah Oct. 4-16, where she’ll swim eight events. The competition will be tough, Phillips said, but she’s preparing for it now with an amped-up training schedule.
“My goal is to come in first or second,” she said.