At 86, Riggs laps up swimming

Published Jul 15, 2014 at 2:00 pm (Updated Jul 15, 2014 at 2:00 pm)

Joan Riggs gingerly ascends the steps leading upward to the slide at Bower Hill Swim Club. At the top, she takes a deep breath, pushes herself through the chute and plunges 12 feet into the pool below. At 86 years young, Riggs is ready for her daily workout.

“I’m glad I still can get up the steps with no trouble, because I hate inching into the water,” she explained. “Once you are up there, you have no choice but to go down [the slide]. I like to get wet all at once.”

Once wet, Riggs gets down to business. Rain or shine, she always swims for 45 minutes, covering at least one half-mile. She varies her workout between freestyle and backstroke with an occasional breaststroke using an aquatics noodle.

“I like to get my laps in,” said Riggs, who swims at the Jewish Community Center during the months Bower Hill is closed. “I am very compulsive that way. I feel I have to do this even if it’s raining. No thunder and lightning,” she noted. “As long as you can see the bottom of the pool. Sometimes it rains so hard that you can’t see the bottom.”

When Riggs and husband, Don, the television personality, moved to the region, she could not envision a community without a swimming pool. But, that’s exactly what she discovered about Scott Township.

“My neighbor told me there was a pool right over the hill. He meant Mt. Lebanon, but I didn’t know that at the time,” she said.

Riggs also didn’t realize how important a pool was to her until she joined a small group of parents in the quest to construct the Bower Hill Swim Club upon five acres of land in the township. The facility celebrates 50 years this summer, and Riggs is the only remaining charter member.

When the complex opened in 1964, Dr. Dick Jewel, who is the current president of Grove City College, served as the first pool manager and Riggs’ four children, Amy, Kathy, Eric and Carl, swam and dove for the club while their dad filmed the home movies at all the swim meets.

“Fifty years ago,” Riggs said, “we had much bigger families and there were many, many more children in the area than there are now.”

She noted other changes. The locker room roof was used for sunbathing as well as a viewing area for swim meets. “It was wonderful to watch from there and everybody back then had those video cameras.”

The members of Bower Hill Swim Club, however, have changed little throughout the years.

“There is a camaraderie here that you do not find at other community pools, where everybody seems to be doing their own thing,” Riggs said. “Here are your friends, and this is where you want to be because this is where the action is.”

As a young girl growing up in Ohio, the action was down by the river. Riggs learned to swim when she was a Girl Scout. “We played a lot,” she said. “I was not a lap swimmer then.” After having swimming children and watching them, she became one.

“Yes,” she conceded, “I love to swim. I know a lot of kids, after they have done it all their life, are not as enthusiastic about it, but you realize how great swimming is because you have something that you can do all your life.”

When one suffers with arthritis, swimming, particularly in a heated pool like Bower Hill, provides relief. In the years prior to his death, when he was confined to a wheelchair because of the chronic disease, Don Riggs, accompanied by his wife, came to Bower Hill for exercise.

“I was always happy with Don. He was a wonderful man,” said Riggs, who also suffers with arthritis.

The Bower Hill lifeguards, noted Riggs, were also ‘wonderful,’ whenever they assisted her getting Don in and out of the water and sometimes back up the hill and into the car. “Don would complain,” she said. “But, I’d say it’s either I do this for you or you pay thousands of dollars for the physical therapy.

“I guess you could say I have determination and strength,” she said humbly, “but I had to stay strong because I had to be able to care for Don.

“I don’t want to be a frail old lady. And,” she continued, “I’m afraid I will be if I stop swimming. I don’t come from a family of long livers, but I hope for a few more good years yet as long as I keep moving.”

In addition to swimming laps, Riggs joins in the club’s water aerobics twice a week. Classes are offered Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

“Life without Bower Hill Swim Club would be horrible,” she noted. “Sometimes I feel guilty about spending the money on myself, but my family insists that I do. The children say it keeps me going.”

A half-century later, it certainly does.

“When I come down the hill and look at that water,” Riggs sighed, “I get a thrill every day.”

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