Master in the Pool and Lecture Hall

A Saturday Special

Olympic gold medalist Dave Berkoff is not the only swimmer at Harvard with a world record.

Last Sunday at the Providence College Masters Swim Meet in Providence, R.I., 45-year old Phillip Whitten--a visiting lecturer in anthropology--competed in the men's 45-49 division and clocked a 2:46.88 to set a the world mark in the 200-meter breaststroke.

Whitten's record is almost four seconds faster than the previous mark set last year and nine seconds faster than the U.S. record set in 1987 by San Diego's Doug Markusic.

In 1983, Whitten, swimming in the 40-44 age group, set the global mark in the 50-meter backstroke with a time of 29.94. That record still stands.

And last year at the Masters World Championships held in Brisbane, Australia, Whitten captured three medals (two silver, one bronze).

Last Sunday's time of 2:46.88 was Whitten's best time in his last 20 years. He started swimming in high school, earning All-America honors in his high school years and later at San Jose State in California.

Whitten currently teaches Science B-29, "Human Behavioral Biology," and is in the process of writing a book with Professor of Anthropology Irven DeVore and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Terrence W. Deacon, who also teach the course.

Despite his busy schedule, Whitten swims close to 5000 yards each day, five days a week. He also weight trains four to six months a year.

Whitten says that he swims to keep in shape and stay healthy. But he has another reason for swimming that relates to his studies as a behavioral anthropologist. For a long time, Whitten has been interested in gerontology, which is study of aging.

"In last 10 to 15 years, we have discovered that virtually everything that we knew about aging is not true," Whitten says. Many of the symptoms associated with old age are results of physical inactivity, as well as cultural attitudes and expectations, Whitten says.

Until 15 years ago, for example, Whitten says that after the age of 25, it was believed there would be approximately a one percent annual decline in physical activity due to a person's decreasing maximum lung capacity. Studies of athletes who train into their middle ages, however, show that this is not true, he says. Whitten has expressed some of his ideas on aging in an article called "Aging, Sexuality, and Exercise," which he wrote for Psychology Today.

"It's an exciting field because a lot of barriers are being broken," Whitten says. "In Masters track, for example, I have no doubt in my mind that someone in his forties will soon break the four-minute mile, Then someone his fifties will do it."

Ironically, Whitten almost decided not to go to last Sunday's meet because of a shoulder injury he suffered two months ago. Because of his injury, the breaststroke is the only stroke he can swim.

"Other strokes are too painful," Whitten says. "Even in the breaststroke, I cannot sprint."

The injury also prevented Whitten from using the platform to start.

Instead, he had to start from the water.

"At the 100-meter mark, my time was not what I usually expect, but I was fresh as when I started," Whitten says.

The result was a new world record.

"I felt that I wanted to dedicate this race to my father who died three months ago," Whitten says. "He saw my first race in high school when I got creamed."

But Whitten is not in high school anymore. He's now breaking world records, as well as some misconceptions about aging.