REDWOOD EMPIRE SWIMMING
Birnie swimming to Hall of Fame
Sebastopol attorney will be inducted into Masters wing in September
Published: Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 6:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 11:28 p.m.
Whenever he stepped to the blocks for a race, butterflies dancing in his stomach and that competitive fire starting to kindle, Tim Birnie would calm himself with a personal mantra: “I do this for fun.”
Birnie had plenty of fun while setting 35 world swim records and 38 additional national records across various age categories. And you can bet he'll be smiling this September when he is inducted into the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Greensboro, N.C.
Despite his ample credentials, Birnie did not anticipate the call. The 66-year-old Sebastopol attorney didn't know why his daughter was crying when she received the news and handed him the phone.
“The last few years I haven't been competing at that level, going to nationals and going to the world championships,” Birnie said. “It wasn't on the radar at all. So when I got it, it was a real surprise and a real honor.”
The news was greeted warmly at Ives Pool in Sebastopol, where Birnie, now 66, has been institution for nearly 40 years. He's on the pool's board of directors, and long ago established himself as the man who sets the pace in the water.
“He's been the No. 1 guy there forever,” said Evett Wilbur, an Ives Pool regular. “There are fast lanes and slow lanes. When he's in the water, I give up my fast lane.”
To be considered for the Hall of Fame, a swimmer must have competed across four five-year age groups, and must have excelled along the way. FINA — the international governing body of swimming, diving, water polo and synchronized swimming — awards points for masters world records, world rankings and world championships (held every two years).
Birnie accumulated enough points to be considered for the Masters Hall of Fame — part of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — and was voted in by the selection committee this month.
Long-limbed and tall at 6-foot-3, Birnie was an All-American swimmer at Southern Methodist University. He never stayed out of the pool for long, but for years swimming was purely a recreational activity for the Dallas native. It wasn't until he turned 45 that he got serious about his performance again, and then the records started to fall in backstroke and freestyle races.
Birnie is a habitual clock-watcher in the pool, and is very organized in his workouts. When he was setting records, he would break the calendar into three-week segments, alternately building and dialing back the intensity. He always stuck to the script.
“I try to never get in the pool without a plan,” Birnie said. “Not only have I mapped out in my head what I'm gonna do, but I've also thought about how fast I want to go. I think personally that's a big part of sports. You learn that if you set goals, you can accomplish those goals.”
A 6-handicap golfer, Birnie noticed that his golf game improved whenever he was training for a national swim meet — a combination, he figures, of conditioning and being in what he calls “an athletic frame of mind.” That said, Birnie's fire has been directed internally for the most part.
“I don't need to get angry to swim,” he said. “I know there's some people, boy, they're champing at the bit when they're getting on the blocks. And that's never been me. Now that doesn't mean I don't spend some time getting focused and think through my race and all that stuff. But I can chat with my competitors.”
Through the years, Birnie has treated the swimming pool as a center of community. In 1974, a year after moving to Sonoma County, he helped lead a successful push to get the Sebastopol City Council to keep Ives Pool open through the winter. He started up dormant swimming programs at Analy and El Molino high schools (along with his wife, Jo), and coached both teams for two years.
Birnie remains active in his legal practice. He works about three days a week now, which is fine with his partners. They are his daughters, Tate and Brittany. Tate, the older of the two, was an all-league swimmer at Analy.
The last time Tim Birnie competed in a major competition was three years ago, at the U.S. Masters Championships in Clovis. Of course, he set a national age-group record in the 200 backstroke.
Birnie was wearing a Speedo LZR that day, the suit that helped numerous swimmers set new standards before FINA disallowed it. Might it be possible, then, that his buoyant record in the 200 back will last forever?
Birnie wasn't biting on that one.
“Nope. It's like everything,” he said. “When I was swimming as a 50-year-old, I set the national record in the 200 freestyle at 1:52. Well, (Olympic gold medalist) Rowdy Gaines is a 50-year-old now. His 200 freestyle time, I believe, was 1:44. It's a quantum leap. Each generation really does get faster.”
Which doesn't seem to be a problem for Birnie. He just finds another age group and dominates all over again.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or email@example.com.
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