86-year-old Sudbury swimmer with MS defies expectations

Sudbury's Derald Balson doesn't let much hold him down.
Derald Balson, 86, takes a break from swimming at the Gatchell Pool in Greater Sudbury. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)
At 86-years-old, Derald Balson competes and wins in national swimming races for seniors despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. 6:59

Sudbury's Derald Balson competes in swimming at a national le​vel at the age of 86.

That's pretty impressive but consider also that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than 40 years ago.

Swimming using only his arms, he won two gold medals last month at the Canada 55 Plus Games in Strathcona County, Alberta.

"A lady said to me once, you remind me of a seal," Balson recalls.

"And I said, 'Gee, they're not very nice looking things.' And she said, 'Yes, but did you ever see them swim?' I said, 'Yes, I have.' She said, 'You know how their tail fin goes just like that? That's what your legs do.'"

He said his legs pretty much hang behind him in the water. He added he has to swim fast because if he's too slow his legs drag on the bottom in the shallow end.

As soon as I start swimming, I'm a different person.- Derald Balson

Balson said swimming wasn't his preferred sport when he started having trouble with his legs.

The first signs came when he was in his 40's playing old timer's hockey. He said his toe would dig into the ice and trip him. He would bang into the boards instead of stopping and his hips went numb.

Balson said one day on his birthday, he tripped over the curb crossing the street. Again, his legs felt numb. To get himself and his wife home, he sat in the car seat and had to lift one leg onto the accelerator. He then had to lift the other onto the brake.
Soon after, his doctor made the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. He predicted that Balson would be in a wheelchair within five years.

Balson is still emotional as he recalled that, at the age of 44, he cried because he wouldn't be able to play old timer's hockey anymore. Then he had the idea to start swimming.

More than four decades later, he gets around using a walker.

"I feel good," Balson said.

"People can't believe it. They see me walk in with a walker, and then see me get into the water. As soon as I start swimming, I'm a different person. It's just one of those things. I can't explain it. There's just something inside me that says go."

Balson said he's got a big box of medals. They include five gold, two silver and a bronze at the provincial level. Now he's got the two golds to add to the collection.

Even after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Balson said life has been good to him. He figures a combination of attitude and luck has gotten  him this far.

"Inside me," he said, "I've got a good feeling about life. And why not enjoy it?."


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