Despite health problems, Baker keeps on swimming

Don Baker has suffered three bouts of prostate cancer and two heart surgeries, but nothing can keep him out of the water.

Every day, the 77-year-old La Jolla resident makes his way to either La Jolla Cove (in the summer) or the Coggan pool at La Jolla High (in the winter) for his daily swim, and he credits the activity for his longevity.

“If it hadn’t been for my swimming, I would have been dead a long time ago,” Baker said.

Baker is more alive than most men his age, or even 20 years his junior. He swims daily not only for exercise, but because he competes around the world in national and international Masters swimming events. The winner of his age group in the 2007 La Jolla Rough Water Swim has also won medals at events in Utah, Oregon, Florida, England and New Zealand.

Latest exploits

At his most recent event, the Hunstman World Senior Games - which were held in October in St. George, Utah, Baker won gold medals in five events, took silver in three events and won one bronze medal.

Baker swam at La Jolla High School in 1946 and ’47, he said, and continued to swim when he moved on to the University of Oregon. His athletic career took a backseat to other things as an adult, though. He had eight children and ran two businesses, and simply didn’t have time to dedicate to the sport.

He said he jumped back into the pool when he turned 60, and swimming has been his passion ever since.

That passion, though, was nearly derailed several times by health issues. He was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1995, but after surgery to remove his prostate, he was back in the pool in a few short months.

Cancer returns

The cancer returned in 2000, and he underwent 40 radiation treatments, which kept him out of the water for a full year. He returned to win a world championship at an event in New Zealand the following year.

Cancer struck him once again in 2005, and this time he battled it with chemotherapy. Again, he returned to the pool about a year later and soon won accolades at a Masters meet in Florida.

Just last summer, he suffered from heart problems during a meet in Portland, Ore. and was required to undergo two separate surgeries to insert a total of six stents in his heart. Through it all, he swam.

Address the problem

“It’s mostly a mental thing,” Baker said of his approach to addressing his medical problems. “You just have to decide that you’re not going to let this beat you.”

Baker’s next big events are the U.S. National Championships, set for Clovis in May, and the National Senior Games, which will take place at Stanford University in August.

“I’m very fortunate to be able to do this,” said Baker, who credited his wife, Gini, and his eight children and 26 grandchildren for supporting him through his health problems and in his swimming. “A lot of guys my age, when they get prostate cancer, they give up. Swimming is very good for me, not only physically, but mentally.”