At 53 years old, there’s nothing that can stop Federico Elizalde
Athletes operate against a ticking clock. They train and work on their craft, and compete at the highest level, all while knowing that the physical attributes responsible for their success, will soon regress and eventually dissipate. You cannot beat Father Time after all, that much has remained true.
However, that’s just how it is with professional sports; it’s absolute. But certainly beyond retirement, no one’s stopping you from remaining athletic—you just wouldn’t be as good as you once were. For one, Fauja Singh, a British Sikh, took up running at the age of 89 and became the oldest man to have completed a full marathon at 100. I wouldn’t expect him to have had the fastest time among the runners, and it wasn’t, but the mere fact that he even attempted and completed it is a feat in itself.
Federico Elizalde, an open water long-distance swimmer, on the other hand, against all odds, and despite his age has seemed to maintain his athleticism and is able to perform at a caliber that is not only impressive but recognizable on the international stage. In an exclusive interview prior to achieving his latest feat, he shares with us his origins as a swimmer and his experiences in the open water.
Elizalde is the son of Fred Elizalde Sr., an acclaimed Filipino athlete who represented the Philippines at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and in the Asian Games in Tokyo in 1958.
Federico Elizalde began swimming during his childhood but stopped at the age of 12. He only started swim training again almost four decades later at 51. Why now? Apparently, he acquired an elbow injury in 2020 that resulted in the development of bursitis, which causes pain and swelling, and limits the range of motion of the affected joint. As such any exercise that required bending his elbow caused him much pain. However, upon reading that water supports 90% of the body weight, and that swimming puts far less stress on the joints than land-based exercises, he thought to try swimming once again in 2021. He explained that other techniques such as freestyle or breaststroke still caused pain in his arm. However, he discovered that swimming in Butterfly stroke very slowly did not cause any elbow pain.
Elizalde shares, “Butterfly stroke is considered to be the most difficult swim stroke to master for most people, but for me, it is quite the reverse.” He adds, “It is the only stroke that I can swim, and I was able to turn my weakness and my injury into my strength. I am in better athletic shape at 53 than when I was 16, but I have not defeated Father Time. I have more body aches and stiff limbs now because of age, but when I swim, all those stiff limbs and aches seem to go away.”
“Butterfly stroke is considered to be the most difficult swim stroke to master for most people, but for me, it is quite the reverse. It is the only stroke that I can swim, and I was able to turn my weakness and my injury into my strength.”
Going the Distance
If there’s a will, there’s a way, and Elizalde has certainly proven it by transforming his weakness into his strength, allowing him to stay active and fit, despite accruing an injury that thought otherwise. And yet, it’s one thing to find an avenue for healthy exercise. It’s another to compete beyond the means of recreation.
In 2021, Elizalde joined a Swimjunkie Open Water Swim Clinic organized by the Philippine Openwater National Swim Team Coach Betsy Medalla. This became the gateway through which he was introduced to long-distance swimming as he began joining her Strong Shoulder Openwater Swim events, races, and marathons.
This “addiction” to long-distance swimming according to him was something he discovered when he experienced that going on such plunges allowed him to enter a meditative state of mind—a form of psychological hydrotherapy to relieve stress and imbue him with a sense of fulfillment and achievement.
It was not something he could experience by solely going on laps around the pool. He explained, “It’s the difference between running on a treadmill versus running on a forest trail. Going on a treadmill is monotonous and boring.” Whereas the sea is visually more stimulating due to the marine life one may chance upon, a pool offers an “awe-inspiring” stretch of unchanging white tiles—it’s no comparison really. Additionally, the very length of long open water swims allows one the opportunity to think, relax, and meditate undistracted without the interruption of having to turn for every lap.
Since then, he has completed a number of swims and set records solely through the Butterfly stroke:
On May 20, 2022, he was the first person to swim from Caticlan in Panay Island to Puka Shell Beach in Boracay Island, a total of 9 km.
On May 24, 2022, he became the only Butterfly swimmer to cross the 3.5 km Maricaban channel. This was through an event organized by the POSCA (Philippine Openwater Swimming Crossing Association).
On June 7, 2022, he was the first and only person (in any swim stroke) who has been ratified by POSCA to complete the 3.5 km Maricaban Strait crossing in Batangas in two ways for a total distance of 7 km.
On October 16, 2022, he was the only participant to swim in Butterfly stroke in the 10 km Caramoan 2022 Swimjunkie Swimming Marathon.
On May 14, 2023, he completed the 8 km Swimjunkie Swim Race in Camiguin Island in Butterfly stroke.
On May 15, 2023, he was the first person to swim Butterfly 5 km from Mantigue Island to Camiguin Island.
On May 28, 2023, he completed the 5 km Swimjunkie Swim race in Lobo in the Verde Island Passage.
On June 16, 2023, he completed the first-ever Butterfly stroke swim from Boracay Island to Carabao Island, with a distance of 5 km in 2 hours.
On July 15, 2023, his latest feat, he participated in the Guided Classique International Swim across Lake Geneva, becoming the first ever to complete the 13 km Butterfly stroke crossing from Lausanne Switzerland, to Evian France, swimming the full width of Lake Geneva. He completed the swim in 6 hours and 44 minutes. The event was ratified by the Lake Geneva Swimming Association LGSA organized by Tim Davies, Cindy Pellegrino, and Coach Jennifer Dutton.
He is looking to set another Butterfly swim record in the upcoming 15 km Caramoan Swimjunkie Swim Marathon on October 8, 2023.
Against the Current
Elizalde likens the open water long-distance swimming experience to that of running a marathon. For him, it is a matter of physical and mental endurance—it is a battle fought on two fronts.
Further delving into the meditative state of mind he undergoes inside the water, he explains that during long swims, he enters somewhat of a hypnagogic state—a transitionary phase between wakefulness and sleep—an early dream stage. For him, this daydream-like state is therapeutic and awards him with a feeling of contentment outside of his fatigue. Moreover, it is also the force that pushes him towards his goal.
And as someone who may not have the same experiences he has, but has run long distances, I can somewhat say that such a state does exist. It is the period in which your mind is numbed and quieted, and random images flood your brain, shielding you from any pain you’ve experienced beforehand. It is when you kind of zone out and enter auto-pilot, moving tirelessly despite coming so close to giving up—it has been referred to by others as “Runner’s High.”
However, for Elizalde, completing such distances also depends on your state of mind prior to going into the water. He explains, “The distance you cover is determined by your state of mind before you begin the swim… And if in the beginning you’re not sure you’re going to do it, you’re not going to be able to do the distance. You have to psych yourself up. The distance you achieve is determined in the beginning.”
“The distance you achieve is determined in the beginning.”
“Life is much more of a marathon than a sprint,” familiar? The physical aspect of a long-distance swim similarly adheres to this idiom. It’s not a matter of speed after all, it’s about finishing no matter what it takes.
He explains, “The amount of energy you exert is determined by the distance you are planning to go. If you’re going to swim a 5 km distance, you’re going to swim at a faster pace than if you’re going to swim a 15 km distance.” Elizalde adds, “I can sprint 50 meters of Butterfly at 4.5 km per hour—I can do one lap at full maximum speed in a 50-meter pool, but I’m completely exhausted afterwards.”
A famous quote from the Philippine National Hero, Jose Rizal, says, “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan” [Those who do not know how to return to their origin will not reach their destination]. For Elizalde, he attributes whatever success he has achieved in the water to the coaches who have been with him since the beginning.
“Swim Coaches have been a very important and inspirational part of my swimming experience and I could not have done this without them,” he shares.
“Swim Coaches have been a very important and inspirational part of my swimming experience and I could not have done this without them.”
Coach Jose Obial: The man who initially taught him how to swim. He also swam for the Philippines in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin and coached his father.
Ebbah “Ibrahim” Hamsain: He was also coached by Hamsain when he was a child and also swam with his father in the 1958 ASEAN Games in Tokyo. He also coached his wife, Karen, how to swim.
Coach Bert Lozada: Coached Elizalde at the MPC Sea Horse Swim Team.
Coach Noli Reloj of ISM Manila: He coached Elizalde and Betsy Medalla when they were younger, and later coached his wife Karen as well during P.E. class at ISM.
Coach Moly Hamsain: He is the son of Ebbah “Ibrahim” Hamsain, who coached him in 2022, and is also teaching his daughters how to swim.
Philippine National Open Water Swim Team Coach Betsy Medalla: She coached him for Open Water Swimming during her clinics in Anilao. They also swam together in their youth in the ISM Sailfish Swim Team.
Coach Rod Sun: A former Philippine Navy Officer who is currently coaching him for swim drills. He is also a coach in MPC and ISM and is coaching Elizalde’s daughter who is on the ISM Sailfish swim team currently.