Jamestown swimmer breaks three world backstroke records
Diann Uustal is a native Rhode Islander who has been living in Jamestown since 1998. She has been swimming in and around Narragansett Bay since she was 7 years old, and today, at 64, she is one of the elite competitive swimmers in the world.
It was Uustal’s grandmother, an open-water ocean swimmer herself, who got her started, first in a lake and then in Narragansett Bay. “She would tie a raft to her body,” Uustal said. “When I got tired I would hold on to the raft, but I had to kick. So at age 7, I was swimming very long distances. We’d get over to the beach and she’d dig a big hole in the beach so I could keep warm. She would give me a chocolate ice cream cone for lunch. We’d hang out at the beach and then swim back later on.”
By the time she was 8, Uustal was swimming competitively and she won her first trophy at Rocky Point on the day that her grandmother won her last trophy in Massachusetts.
Despite being offered a number of college scholarships for her swimming ability, Uustal instead chose to attend the University of Rhode Island where she pursued a nursing career. Although she loves her career, she sometimes wishes she had chosen to continue swimming at the time. “Just before graduating I started training for the Olympics and narrowly lost getting a [slot on the team],” she recalled. “I was pretty heartbroken at that point.”
Uustal met her husband when they were lifeguards in East Greenwich the summer before both started classes at URI. They have passed on their love of swimming and other sports to their children. “Both of our daughters swam in college,” Uustal said. “Our older daughter was just inducted into the Rhode Island Aquatic Hall of Fame. I was inducted into the hall of fame years ago. I think we’re the only mother-daughter team.”
Uustal graduated from college in 1968 and did not swim again competitively on the national level for 10 years. In 1978 she entered United States Masters Swimming, a highly competitive series in which people can compete in five-year age groups, beginning at age 18. Most people start a little later because you can’t be an NCAA swimmer and a Masters swimmer at the same time.
“I had some national titles then,” Uustal said. “But I was probably not as good then as I am now. I’m doing times that are better than when I was in my 40s. My history in the last two years since I came back into the sport very heavily is that almost every time I race I have broken my own national records, or I have gone so far as to break world records. My times are still improving. I’m sure that won’t last, because age is real, but right how that’s my experience.”
Uustal suffered an accident a few years ago that left her with a bad spinal cord injury. She returned to competitive swimming in 2008 as a method of rehab. “At first I was swimming with one arm and one leg,” she said. “They were the only two working body parts.”
At a meet in Bethesda, Md., this year, she broke three world backstroke records in one day, an unprecedented occurrence. She presently holds eight world swimming records and 14 or 15 national records. “My primary goal for next year will be not only the United States National Championships – and there are two of them every year – but to go the World Games which are in Italy. I’m looking forward to not only competing, but to being faster next summer than I am this year.”
Training begins early each day for Uustal. “I’m probably home and in my office and doing what I do professionally before most people are out of bed,” she said. “My swimming doesn’t really interfere with very much. It adds to the quality of my life. Besides, it gives my grandkids something to talk about. I have to swim at least five events, because they get the medals.”
Uustal, who lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., for part of the year, trains each morning with a team of 30 to 40 people in a local pool there. While she is in Jamestown during the summer she trains alone. “I wasn’t supposed to be able to walk again,” Uustal says. “How it plagues me is that whether I have pain or not I get up and get in the water and I do what I need to do. In races I swim very conservatively because more than anything I fear getting hurt.”
Uustal still faces further neurological surgery as a result of her injury.
Watching her diet is as important to Uustal as it is to any elite athlete. “I wouldn’t say I’m fanatical,” she says. “I just make good choices about whatever I put in my mouth. I eat extremely healthy.”
While swimming is certainly an important part of her life, Uustal is also proud of her professional career. She has a doctorate in medical ethics from Georgetown University. “My job is to work with families and patients who are making decisions about end-of-life care,” Uustal said. “I help the patient to die well. My job is to make sure that it is as positive a spiritual experience as it possibly can be.”
She said that her ministry is to be present for people and make sure that their needs are met at a time that is a huge transition between this life and whatever they believe they’re going on to.
“It’s important to honor and respect people at a time like that,” she said. “I’m absolutely as passionate about it as I am about swimming.”