Ed McCarthy has to be the world's oldest sex symbol, with apologies to Paul Newman.
Both are 83, but McCarthy is a lifeguard at the Harris YMCA, and we all know how chicks dig lifeguards.
In fact, he's the world's oldest working lifeguard, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, which makes him sort of famous, too.
“He's hot in a Speedo,” says Lauren Satter, a water exercise instructor who is about half McCarthy's age. “When he walks by … the ladies in my 11 o'clock class look, hoot and holler.”
No one is more surprised by this than McCarthy's wife, Vivian, who is not athletic in the least.
Neither was Ed when they got married in 1964.
“What makes us a good fit?” she asks. “You got me. If we met as strangers today, we might not even have bothered with each other, which strikes me as funny.”
What happened to him?
Well, she says, that can be summed up in one word.
Triathlete, Senior Olympian and a mean cook
To say Ed McCarthy has had a lifelong love affair with water would be a lie.
He didn't take up swimming until age 62, and he didn't become a lifeguard until he was 67. A man of few words, Ed says his motivation was simple: “I wanted to be a better swimmer and I figured what better way than to be a lifeguard.”
It marked the start of his post-retirement transformation, which is apparently ongoing. In addition to swimming, he is currently the oldest active triathlete on record in North Carolina, and has become a Senior Olympian, with three gold medals to his credit this year in swimming events.
The title of world's oldest working lifeguard was bestowed on him last August, after he lost two previous bids. His competition had been another YMCA lifeguard, Haywood Stewart of Colorado, who held the title until he was nearly 90.
“I heard he retired, so I went after it,” says Ed. “I'm not sure yet if it will actually appear in the 2009 Guinness book (due in September), since they have 40,000 categories to pick and choose from. It would be nice, though.”
His many accomplishments are all the more impressive when taking into account a series of health setbacks over the past seven years, including treatment for prostate cancer and the removal of a cancerous kidney last year.
“I hurt my hip a few months ago, and it has hampered my running,” Ed says. “I try my best to work out five days a week, biking, swimming, running or working out in the gym. I do at least two of those every day.”
For the record, he also takes care of the lawn, does most of the grocery shopping, and helps deliver meals to shut-ins with the Friendship Trays program.
He's a decent cook, too.
How it all started
Vivian doesn't pretend to understand what has gotten into her husband since they moved from New York to Charlotte in 1991.
She attends water exercise classes, but her sport of choice is window shopping, followed by a leisurely lunch with the girls.
“When he developed a keen interest in all these sports, I said, ‘Good. Go for it, but not I',” she says. “Most people are slowing down as they get older. He's speeding up. Sometimes, he actually comes home and complains that he didn't swim fast enough or run fast enough that day. I say, ‘Hello! You're getting old!'”
The man she met back in 1962 wasn't much for exercise. At the time, both were living on Long Island and working for the New York Telephone Co., he as an engineer and she as a service representative. Neither calls it love at first sight when they met at a company party. In fact, she was surprised when he asked her out one night to see “The Sound of Music.”
They were married within two years and raising a family.
Looking back, she probably should have suspected Ed was more adventurous than she imagined. The first hint came when he was 43, and hurt his back shoveling snow off the driveway of their home in Seaford, N.Y.
Rather than taking time to recuperate, he began trying to tone up by running up to eight miles a day, five days a week. Then came the day he decided to learn to snow ski by joining the rescue patrol at a nearby ski resort. He was 62 at the time.
“He wasn't all that interested in swimming until we moved to Charlotte,” Vivian recalls. “First he joined the Y, and before you know it, he's preparing for the Senior Games and working as a lifeguard.”
She doesn't know it yet, but he's considering sky diving, too.
The Depression generation
Ed likes to credit his training as a Marine for just about everything.
Raised the son of a liquor store owner, he volunteered for the Marines against his father's wishes in 1943, right after graduating from high school. “I had no idea what I wanted to do in life,” Ed recalls. “It was a time of uncertainty, when all anyone wanted to do was go fight, and I wanted nothing more than to be in the infantry.”
By age 18, he was a Marine sergeant, repairing radar equipment in the Pacific. He never did get to meet the enemy face to face, but that didn't stop him from returning to active duty in the Korean War. He didn't see combat then, either, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
“Let's face it, it's an ego thing,” Ed says, explaining his lust for adventure. “I'm getting a kick out of doing these things, because I still can do them.”
Mark McCarthy, the oldest of his four children, says it's more than just ego, however. He believes his father is part of a generation of men who didn't really learn how to live life to the fullest until after they retired.
“They were born during the Great Depression and grew up tough during World War II,” says Mark McCarthy. “They were not frivolous or given to indulgent hobbies. They went to school, got a job, worked 10 hours a day, raised a family and cut the grass. It was only after my dad retired that he got a sense of self-awareness and confidence.”
Vivian agrees. She says retirement has become one big adventure for both of them.
“He's totally enjoying life and doesn't want it to end,” she says. “We joke that we are getting older, but we're not ready yet. We're not ready to go.”
It doesn't bother her, either, that Ed is changing faster than she can keep up.
“The basic qualities that attract people never disappear,” she says. “It's not about growing apart. It's about growing.”
The cancer again
Ed guesses he has made 10 rescues as a lifeguard, most of them kids who simply “needed a little help.”
Lauren Satter also credits him with preventing several heart attacks at the pool, when he chased down a senior who forgot to put on a bathing suit. “I had a class in the pool and this man came out wearing only his flotation belt. My class was speechless,” she says. “It's so loud around the pool that the man couldn't hear Ed yelling at him. He finally caught up with the guy and wrapped a towel around him. All the man said was: ‘Oh, I thought it was kind of drafty.' It was hysterical.”
Ed's goal is to work indefinitely as a lifeguard, but he has been forced to take some time off.
The kidney surgery he had in 2007 didn't get all the cancer, and tests show it has spread. A few weeks ago, Ed began chemotherapy and it has robbed him of his stamina for the time being.
There is no doubt in his mind that the therapy will work. The question is if it will work quickly enough to fit his schedule.
Yes, the man still has a schedule to keep.
“I have qualified for the N.C. Senior Games in Raleigh in September and I plan to swim in four events,” he says. “I think I'll be strong enough by then.”
That's how sex symbols are.