Three times a week, Chester Parks meets up with his swim coach, hops into a pool and puts in at least a half-mile of training. Having qualified for a national meet, Parks has been prepping to take home the gold in the 25- and 50-yard freestyle races, as well as the 25-yard backstroke. He’s confident and competitive.
He’s also an 88-year-old World War II veteran.
Parks, a Harvard resident whose daughter-turned-trainer lives in Woodstock, will compete in the 30th National Veterans Golden Age Games in three swimming events Tuesday, July 12, at the Wayne State University pool in Detroit.
The Golden Age Games offers sports and recreational competitive events for military veterans 55 and older. It’s the largest sports and recreation competition for this age group of veterans in the world, sporting the motto “fitness for life,” with the goal of veterans living healthier, longer lives. The games have separate age groups and gender divisions. Events include traditional competitions like swimming and track and field, but also contests such as air rifle, horseshoes, badminton, shuffleboard and table tennis. Since 2004, the games have been a qualifier for the National Senior Games, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Parks will compete in the 85- to 100-year-old age group.
“People see me crippled up, walking with a walker,” he said. “They see me old, the gray hair, and they kind of feel sorry for me. But once I get in the water, whoa! I’m really good!”
The veteran and his daughter, Linda Allen — who also serves as his coach — made friends with the staff at Northfield Court Apartments in Harvard and frequents the indoor pool for practices. Though the recreational pool measures only around 15 yards and has no lane lines, Parks gets by with some makeshift markers he and his daughter whipped up to help him see, since he is almost 100 percent blind.
Parks said the man who introduced him to the games is Eric Strong, a visual impairment services team coordinator in northern Illinois. Strong’s team helps provide vision support groups at Veterans Administration medical centers. Parks said Strong has been extremely helpful in hooking Parks up with equipment and technology that help him with his sight.
But not being fully sighted doesn’t stop the crafty competitor. Swimming has been in his blood since he was a boy. Parks swam through high school, where he was named captain of the Wells High School swim team in 1943. He nabbed a memorable sixth-place finish in the backstroke at the Chicago city meet.
When Parks turned 18, the Polish-American teen from northwest Chicago received “the greeting letter.” He was drafted into the service. Though he didn’t have much choice to enlist, he was relieved to be classified 1A – fit for duty.
“If you didn’t go in the Army, you were a 4F,” Parks said. “If you were a regular guy, maybe 20 years old, during the war, walking around, everyone looked down at you because they thought you were a 4F, that there was something wrong with you. I was delighted when I got my classification of 1A.”
From 1946 to 1947, Parks served in the Army Corps of Engineers. Assigned to the Pentagon, he handled “super top secret” classified information, he said. He and one other man were enlisted and had the run of the entire barracks at Fort Belvoir engineering camp.
“I had a nice cushy job, a class-A pass,” Parks said. “I was lucky.” But Parks said he had to be on his toes to be sure not to divulge any information. “If you even sneezed the wrong way, ‘Get out!’”
Parks lived in Harvard with his wife, Beatrice, for 12 years, moved out toward Las Vegas for 10 years and returned to Harvard again. They have two daughters – Allen of Woodstock and Karen Lutze, Philadelphia – and a son, Jeffrey Parks, Mt. Prospect. Chester and Beatrice Parks have been married for 66 years.
“We are very proud of him,” said Allen. “People who see him at the pool are amazed at his age and vitality. Everyone is so thrilled for him. My dad is supersocial, so he likes this kind of thing, and he’s competitive.”
Though she spends hours of her own time helping him train, Allen said she couldn’t be happier helping out.
“It’s my dad,” she said. “Anything for my dad. He’s a winner. In my heart, even if he doesn’t, he’s won. There aren’t a lot of 88-year-olds who are going out and competing in a swimming event on a national level.”
Parks is taking his training seriously but still having fun with it. Being competitive, he said he’s aiming for gold in all three events, and he’s not going through all this trouble for nothing.
“I’m not going out there to lose,” he said. “I’m going out there to be No. 1. Now, whether that happens or not, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you the truth, they’re gonna have a hell of a time beating me. If they’re not training, I’m gonna whoop ‘em bad.”