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Tebbetts competes in 2013 Senior Games

NATCHEZ — Rita Tebbetts started swimming at the Natchez Senior Citizen Multi-Purpose Center to stay physically fit, but she later found herself competing against some of the best swimmers in the nation at the Senior Olympics.

Tebbetts, 73, said swimming helps her feel young.

And what was once just a hobby turned into a serious sport for Tebbetts.

Tebbetts said she qualified for the 2013 Senior Olympic Games in Cleveland, by competing at the State Games of Mississippi Masters Swimming competition in Meridian.

She floated through the tournament with five gold medals in six events simply because she was the only one in a racing lane.

“It was easy to qualify for the Olympics, because there aren’t’ enough participants in Mississippi in my 70-74 age group,” Tebbetts said.

After coming out of the state games on top, Tebbetts came back to Natchez to train extensively.

“I was practicing at the Senior Center four times a week, and I felt pretty confident,” Tebbetts said.

But once she left for Cleveland, things got a little rusty.

Tebbetts said she decided to take a round trip to Cleveland and visit two of her children in Alabama and Tennessee.

In Alabama, she had no access to an Olympic-size swimming pool, and because of that she had to go a week without practice.

But once she made it to Tennessee, she was able to dive back into her training.

“I felt better about getting some consistent practice in before the Olympics,” she said.

Once Tebbetts made it to her final destination, she got signed up and ready to compete, but nothing could prepare her for her biggest challenge yet.

“Before we got there we had no idea what the swim schedule was like, but when I saw my event schedule, I dreaded it,” Tebbetts said. “On the second day, I had four events all between 9 a.m. and noon, and they were my most difficult events.”

Tebbetts said her biggest concern was with fatigue. On the first day, she swam the 50-yard backstroke and cut almost a full second off of her seedtime of 59 seconds. She placed 17th out of 35 competitors.

On the second day, Tebbetts had to prepare to swim the 100-yard individual medley, 200-yard breaststroke, 200-yard backstroke and the 50-yard breaststroke almost back-to-back. That would be tiring for an athlete of any age, and Tebbetts said she had to be mentally tough to get through the day.

“I made a decision that I was going to do the best I could,” she said. “The reason I started swimming was to stay fit, not to win. So I decided to have fun, and I ended up shaving some speed time off of most of my events, so that’s great.”

Tebbets finished the 100-yard individual medley with a time of 2:18.54, and 15 minutes later she had to head to the 200-yard breaststroke event where she won an eighth place ribbon.

“I was surprised because I was so tired and I still had two more events to compete in that day,” she said. “I felt proud to represent Mississippi.”

Tebbetts said she got through the 200-yard breaststroke by thinking of sentimental things.

“I had to complete eight lengths in the event, and each length I prayed for each of my seven children and then my husband, Harvey,” Tebbetts said.

Tebbetts finished her last two events of the evening, cutting off 12 seconds on her seedtime in the 200-yard backstroke to place 16th out of 24 competitors before ending her toughest day with the 50-yard butterfly event.

She proved to be exhausted, after adding two second to her butterfly event, posting a 1:14 seconds compared to her 1:12 seedtime.

On her final day, Tebbetts finished with the 5-yard breaststroke and came in 13th out of 26 swimmers.

Tebbetts said she still plans to compete in the Mississippi State Games every year but is still debating on if she will compete in the 2015 Senior Olympic Games in Saint Paul, Minn.