When Ed McCullough said he didn’t swim as a kid, he meant that he didn’t swim competitively.
It’s a key distinction because, when he slips into the water, McCullough doesn’t fool around. Even at the age of 81, when he no longer swims competitively, “When I get in, I swim,” said the retired Brookfield High School biology and human physiology teacher.
“I try to swim at least a mile,” he said of each of the three days a week he dips into the Buhl Community Recreation Center pool in Sharon.
McCullough, who was raised in Claysville, Pa., started competitive swimming at what was then Slippery Rock State College, advancing quickly enough to become captain of the swim team in his senior year.
“It’s something that, once I caught on and I started to excel in it, beat people, it only got better,” the Sharon resident said.
That Slippery Rock team of 1957-61 beat larger schools such as West Virginia University and Kent State University, he said.
“We had a good swim program,” he said.
Even so, McCullough considered himself to be behind other swimmers simply because he had not been doing it as long.
“I could have been a hell of a lot better,” said McCullough, who played basketball in high school.
After graduation, McCullough started officiating scholastic and collegiate swim meets to keep close to the sport. He officiated for 45 years.
Professionally, McCullough spent a year teaching in Neshannock, near New Castle, and then got the job at Brookfield, where he spent 30 years.
He went back to competitive swimming in masters meets for adults, consistently winning medals – including gold – in backstroke events and setting age-bracket records at AAU and YMCA meets in his 40s and 60s, and Pennsylvania Senior Games meets in his 70s.
He has been inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame and the Mercer County Hall of Fame for his aquatic accomplishments.
McCullough, who called the much-younger Michael Phelps “my hero,” said he was as serious about training as an adult as he was as a college student.
“If you don’t want to put the time in … you really have to be disciplined to swim, especially if you want to go somewhere,” he said.
His desire to go somewhere did not include coaching.
“I’d rather do it myself,” he said. “I didn’t want to push somebody to do something they didn’t want to do.”
Parents often do the pushing, in many cases because they swam as children and understand the dedication needed to excel, he said.
McCullough marveled at how the sport has evolved over time, from the development of swim goggles – they came into regular use while he was in college – and better suits to the out-of-the-water training swim athletes now do.
“Kids today are weightlifting,” McCullough said. “We never did that.”
These days, McCullough swims for his health, although he said that when he gets in the pool, “I feel 81.”
“I try to keep my weight down,” he said. “I weigh now what I weighed in college. I weigh about 190.”
Freestyle and backstroke swimming do not put the strain on the body that running and weightlifting do, making it a good exercise as people age, he said. Butterfly and breast strokes are more demanding on a body, he said.
McCullough said he is thankful that the Buhl Club is nearby and open all year-round.
“If it wasn’t here, I probably wouldn’t be swimming,” he said.