It’s probably overstating the case to say that Lettice Graham has found the fountain of youth.
But there’s no doubt that there’s something in the water at the Hansborough Recreation Center. That’s the home of the Harlem Honeys and Bears, an all-black co-ed synchronized swimming team for seniors. It’s the only 55+ competitive synchronized swim team in New York City, and one of only a few in the state.
At 97, Graham is the team’s oldest member. Like her teammates – quite a few of whom are in their 70s and 80s – she’s found incredible health benefits from being part of the Harlem Honeys and Bears. A few years ago, she told her doctor she was throwing away all her medications.
“I feel great,” Graham said. “Some people have told me they started swimming after meeting me. As far as age is concerned, it’s just a number. I’ve slowed down some, but I get where I’m going!”
Bruce Johnson, a New York City Parks Department Aquatics director, founded the Harlem Honeys and Bears in 1979 to address the health of neighborhood seniors. Forty years later, the team has 25 active members who practice three times a week and often train more on their own.
Many didn’t learn to swim until they retired. Graham learned at age 64. Jean Miller, 76, began swimming at 63 after retiring from the Board of Education. She says the social aspect of being on the team is special, but she needs it physically.
“If I go two weeks without being in the pool, I can feel it in my body,” Miller said. “I wish I had started sooner! I feel young. I dress young. I dance. I carry on with the grandkids.”
Barbara Eison-White, 84, who enters the pool using a lift chair, credits the team with her energy level and health.
“If I weren’t swimming, I wouldn’t be able to do all the other things I do in my life,” she said. “And I never had water on my face until I was 65, other than washing my face!”
Swimming can help strengthen the heart and lungs, tone muscles, increase endurance and promote weight loss, said Emily Creran, a physical therapist with NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
“It’s a low-impact exercise that’s great for aging bodies,” Creran said. “And when your organs are healthy, then you live longer.”
There’s also a strong community aspect to the Harlem Honeys and Bears. Some members talk about not having the opportunity to learn early in their life because they faced discrimination or simply didn’t have access to a pool. Many of them spend time teaching kids in Harlem how to swim.
They know that the statistics on water safety are dire; accidental drowning is a leading cause of death among African-American youth, according to the NIH. Some 64 percent of black kids can’t swim, compared with 42 percent of white children, the U.S.A. Swimming Foundation says.
“I know we have made a difference,” said Luther Gales, 79, the team’s president and assistant coach. He spoke proudly about seeing some of the kids he taught become competitive swimmers on the national level. “That’s a really good feeling,” he said.
Modupeola Fadugba, a Nigeria-based artist, was drawn to the team’s place in the cultural and social history of swimming. She spent time with the Honeys and Bears while on a summer residency in New York and was inspired to create an exhibition of paintings and a documentary on them. A trailer for the film on her website shows the team in action.
The team does synchronized swimming exhibitions and also swims locally against other seniors throughout New York City, as well as state-wide at the Empire State Senior Games held in Cortland, New York. A few members also compete on the national level, including Gales. He most recently brought home medals from the 2017 National Senior Games in Birmingham, Ala., and is hoping to compete again in 2021.
Gales learned to swim when he was nine. The Harlem Honeys and Bears drew his attention after he retired as a New York City housing police officer and noticed the team practicing at the Hansborough Recreation Center.
“At first they told me I was too young,” he said. “But I kept asking and they finally let me on the team when I was 55!”
Graham won a silver medal in the backstroke and a gold in the freestyle in a New York City competition last spring.
“When you are in the pool at age 97 there aren’t too many other people swimming against you,” she said. “I think there was one other person in my age category. She beat me in the backstroke, and I beat her in the freestyle!”
Gales said the team has done quite well overall in competitions. The Honeys and Bears may not be quite up to the level of the young synchronized swimming teams that compete in the Olympics, but they feel healthy, strong and fulfilled.
“On the senior teams we are able to relax the official rules of synchronized swimming,” Gales said. “Our bodies aren’t as limber as they used to be, but we do pretty well with what we have!”