An old lady reborn in the pool of life

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Imagine you are 72 years old and heading rapidly for that plot in the cemetery at All Saint's Church, just down the road. Your life has been plagued by illness and serious operations. You live in a tiny terraced house in Cardiff with few possessions and no family except an ailing daughter and a couple of cats. Not much to live for, really, is there?

That's what Emily Godsall thought. "I was useless," she admits candidly. Almost a decade later, she looks like a cover model for Glamorous Granny magazine. She might even have trouble convincing bus drivers that she is entitled to concessionary fares. Her achievements have won her the 1996 Pharmaton Senior Sportswoman of the Year title. And it's all down to swimming.

Not just a gentle paddle across the pool with a rubber ring, either. Emily, now 79, is rated among the top 10 in the world at both backstroke and breaststroke for her age group. She has twice swum a mile at charity events - pretty good considering that the old Emily couldn't even manage a width.

"I was terrible then," she recalls. "I was really weak, a little old lady with legs like matchsticks." She had never been well all her life, and had undergone eight operations for everything from heart disease to acute panceatitis, from breast cancer to a double hiatus hernia.

They say that when you're down, along comes a thief to steal your purse. "If it had been myself, I wouldn't have bothered, but then my daughter was very poorly and I had to look after her," Emily said. So she took up swimming. "I had never been any good at sports, but I realised I needed to take up some form of exercise, and swimming was the only one I thought I could do. I couldn't swim a width when I started."

She went along to the Empire Pool in Cardiff, very proud of her new swimming costume with a little skirt, and her decorative hat. "I had to look really hard to find one with blue and pink flowers on it. I didn't have any goggles: after all, I wasn't going to put my face in the water. The first thing I was told was to get rid of the awful costume and hat, and get some goggles."

The first few lessons took a great deal out of her. "I was hopelessly out of breath. I came home and went straight to bed because I was so tired." But she rapidly turned from a flapper to a fish. "Soon I could do about 50 metres. It just seemed to come naturally." It changed her too. "Instead of walking like a little old lady, I was standing more upright, and not getting out of breath."

Emily progressed so fast that she was entered in the Welsh Championships for her age group that year. It was the first competition of any sort that she had ever competed in. "I couldn't dive then, and I wasn't very good at the turns, but I won the bronze. That was a real surprise. I was pleased not to be last."

A couple of months later, she travelled to the British Championships where she won a silver for breaststroke and a bronze for backstroke. "I was almost living at the pool then, training five times a week and helping handicapped swimmers on Sundays." The following year, she broke the Welsh record for backstroke, a feat she has achieved on several occasions. In 1991 she took her first gold in the British Championships at Leeds. She has now won 106 medals.

Last year she became the first Welsh person to win the annual Kia-Ora award for sporting achievement. It was a timely recognition of her success. In 1995 she won two golds at the GB Masters, and was chosen for the Welsh team for the 1996 World Championships in Sheffield, where she was placed in the top 10 in four events. Not bad for a woman who once had trouble walking to the bus stop.

Recently, she went to the doctor, worried about a lump growing on her chest. It turned out to be pectoral muscle. "He gave me a check-up and said my pulse rate is 56, lower than Sebastian Coe," she says proudly. Emily is even convinced that she's getting faster.

"I would love to do more World Championships, but I could only compete this year because it was in Sheffield. For most competitions, I put away 20p pieces, but for that, I had to get a second mortgage on my house to pay for entry fees, travel, accommodation and swimsuits. I would love to take part in the European Championships next year in Prague, but the whole thing will cost pounds 500." To her, such an amount in one hit is as inconceivable as a Lottery win.

But money is far less important than the fact that Emily has discovered life. She is out of the house most days, and if she's not swimming, she's doing aquarobics, talking to groups about what she has done or studying for her time-keeping exam. She's even started tai chi. "Since I took up swimming, my life has never been better, and I've travelled all over the country. Nobody could have been in a worse state than I was. If I can do it, anyone can."