Jim Berk, Jeff Ellis and Sharon Carter
From left: Jim Berk, Jeff Ellis and Sharon Carter. (Tina Friedman/Lori Ellis/ Jon Carter)

With no competition due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these residents did the next best thing.

Jim Berk and Jeff Ellis have won multiple medals at the Michigan Senior Olympics, but they didn’t add to their totals this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In-person swimming and powerlifting events weren’t held, and Berk and Ellis didn’t want to compete in the virtual versions.

“The virtual swimming competition didn’t appeal to me,” Berk said. “I mean no disrespect to those who did it.”

With no competitions, the West Bloomfield residents did the next best thing.

They combined creativity with safety so they could stay in shape and hopefully compete next year in the Michigan Senior Olympics.

With pools closed, Berk swam in Walled Lake from late May until mid-September, often with longtime friend and fellow “swimaholic” Sharon Carter, hugging the shoreline about 100 yards offshore in 4-to-5-feet deep water. The two wore wet suits when the water was chilly.

Berk, 66, swam 1½ to 2 miles in his workouts. He normally swims a mile during a pool workout.

Ellis, 61, added equipment to his basement home gym, where he has worked out exclusively since the pandemic began this spring.

Going to the gym isn’t an option for the cancer survivor.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable there,” Ellis said. “I’m a CPA. I do my best to minimize risk for my clients. Going to the gym would be a health risk for me.”

Swimming in Walled Lake became a making lemonade out of lemons scenario for Berk.

“This summer was the first time I swam in a lake on a regular basis (three days a week),” he said. “If there’s a silver lining in this mess we’re in, I feel I got much better workouts in the lake than I would have in a pool because you’re fighting the wind and waves and watching out for boat traffic.”

And watching out for police officers.

A Walled Lake officer questioned Berk one day during a swim session. Berk told the officer why he was swimming in the lake even though the beach was closed and surrounded by yellow police tape so crowds wouldn’t gather.

“Once the officer learned what I was doing, he was cool with it, and I didn’t get stopped by law enforcement the rest of the summer,” Berk said.

“The officer joked with me a little. He said he saw me swimming in my wetsuit, and it looked like a trash bag floating on the water. He couldn’t make out what the wetsuit was at first.”

Carter, 62, a Farmington resident, also was an infrequent lake swimmer before this summer.

“I agree with Jim. I should have done more lake swimming years ago,” Carter said, even though “you need to be cognizant of boats, jet skis and fish.”

And turtles.

“I reached down into the water (in Walled Lake) to pick up what I thought was a rock and the rock moved. It was a turtle,” Carter said.

Berk and Carter are getting in some pool swimming these days at the Farmington Family YMCA, which has opened for limited individual swims.

This year’s Michigan Senior Olympics was supposed to be a qualifier for swimmers the 2021 National Senior Games in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Instead, swimmers who qualified for the 2019 National Senior Games in Albuquerque, N.M. are now eligible to compete in the 2021 National Senior Games.

So Berk can compete in the 50, 100 and 200 breaststroke in the 65-69 age group next year in Fort Lauderdale.

“I plan to do a lot of lake swimming next summer leading up to the nationals,” said Berk, who competed in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 National Senior Games, winning a silver medal in the 100 breaststroke in 2015 in Minneapolis.

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