Water Warrior: Two-time cancer survivor jumps headfirst into swimming

As told to Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Four years ago, after completing rounds of chemotherapy and radiation during his second battle with colon cancer, Haruki Yokochi searched for a way to stay healthy.

“After I got cancer the first time, I went to the gym five days a week and lifted weights and ran on the treadmill. After my second cancer, I stopped going to the gym. I wanted to find another way to get in shape,” the 70-year-old Decatur resident said.

Drawn to the mental and physical benefits of swimming — specifically for older adults — Yokochi jumped headfirst into the sport.

“I knew how to swim, but it was never my sport,” he said. “YouTube was my coach. I learned to flip turn, to work on interval training and on techniques to gain endurance and speed.”

During his lunch hour, Yokochi practiced the techniques he learned on YouTube at the Aquadome Recreation Center.

“Haruki is one of the reasons I want to keep swimming. He is a great example of the benefits of swimming. Swimming is something you can do all your life,” said Dawn McAfee, who coaches Yokochi and the Decatur Area Swim Team.

Those benefits include increasing endurance and oxygen intake levels while, at the same time, limiting stress on the joints.

“Swimming doesn’t have the same impact on the body that running has,” McAfee said. “Saying that, water does put pressure all over the body. Essentially it strengthens everything it touches.”

Swimming in retirement

When Yokochi retired from Toray last year, his pursuit of swimming expanded. In February 2021, he joined the Madison Titans, a masters swim team.

To participate in the masters swimming program, individuals must be at least 18 and swim 25 to 50 yards. Yokochi represents the oldest member in the Madison Titans’ 20-year history.

Coached by Roger von Jouanne, who swam internationally for the United States, the Madison Titans practice every weekday from 6 to 7:30 a.m. Yokochi attends every practice.

“This means I have to get up at 5 a.m. when it’s still dark out to drive to … Dublin Park in Madison where the pool is located. As I was never a morning person, it takes a lot of determination and commitment to stay on the team,” Yokochi said.

During a typical practice, Yokochi swims 2,000 to 3,000 yards — that equals anywhere from 80 to 120 lengths of a 25-yard pool.

“Roger and other teammates were very receptive to my joining the team although my level of swimming was way below their abilities. I am the oldest and slowest of the group, but I work hard. By the time I get out of the pool I am exhausted. But I also feel a sense of accomplishment. It is a great way to start the day,” Yokochi said.

Age group runner-up

In March of this year, Yokochi competed with the Madison Titans during the Southeastern Zone Masters Championships in Auburn. The Southeastern Zone covers eight states and 35 teams competed in the championships. The Titans placed second. Yokochi, who participated in eight individual events and two relays, came in second in his age group.

“It was a little intimidating at first. I have made some mistakes due to lack of experience, but I was happy to complete all events,” Yokochi said. “I think I enjoyed the relays the most. When it comes to relays, not only do you swim for yourself, but for your entire team. It gives me an extra motivation to swim faster.”

McAfee described Yokochi as “a beast.”

“I want Yokochi to visit with my youth swim teams. They need to see how hard he works. He is amazing,” McAfee said.

Yokochi typically swims 10 to 15 hours a week, divided between one session at the Aquadome and five sessions at Madison’s Dublin Park.

He plans on swimming as long as physically possible.

“Swimming and retirement form a synergy. I cannot think of retirement without swimming and vice-versa. Swimming is a complex and technical sport. I am only beginning to learn it. It takes a lot of dedication and long hours of training to be a good swimmer. I have utmost respect for all seasoned swimmers,” Yokochi said.

The Aquadome pool is open Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. The cost is $25 per quarter for ages 62 and older and $50 per quarter for ages 61 and younger. The facility also offers water aerobics Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 to 9:55 a.m., and water walking Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 10-10:55 a.m. The cost of the classes is $10 per month.