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Swimming against the odds

An overcomer: Terry King (almost 81) trains in the Splash Palace public pool in Invercargill. Photo: Karina Davis-Marsden

A plucky 80-year-old Southland swimmer has overcome three major surgeries and paralysis to compete in the New Zealand Masters Games.

“I think the attitude to stay positive when times are tough is what got me through,” says Terry King, who turns 81 at the end of March.

“The most important thing is, keep positive, and that’s what I do.”

The Invercargill resident first competed in the games in 2014 and won four gold medals. Freestyle is his main stroke, although he also does backstroke and breaststroke.

“Unfortunately, I got crook,” Terry says. Becoming unwell is an understatement; he endured three years of health hurdles and serious operations.

In November 2015, he had a heart attack and had stents installed and was then diagnosed with a malignant stomach tumour.

In February 2016, Terry underwent major invasive surgery which removed his entire stomach and more than 20 lymph nodes. He had three months of chemotherapy before this and a further three months afterwards.

The cancer treatment has been successful so far; however, the disease prevented him competing in the 2016 games.

Then in July 2017, he suffered a severe spinal stenosis which left him paralysed from the waist down.

He had major surgery at Dunedin Hospital and was then cared for in the Burwood Spinal Unit in Christchurch for about a month.

Spine strengthening…Terry King uses two rākau during an exercise class at Tomairangi Marae, Invercargill. Class assistant, Emma Furlonge (left), and participant, Myra Clarke, are alongside. Photo: Karina Davis-Marsden

After a week at the Southland Hospital rehabilitation unit, he was discharged. He’s no longer paralysed, although uses an elbow walking stick for balance and support.

Amazingly, Terry competed in the 2020 games.

“That was my target, I’d always said to people, ‘you’ve got to have a goal’.”

That year he won two golds, two silvers and a bronze medal.

Slow and regular

Terry says swimming and cycling don’t stress the skeletal system. He trained hard for his events and still continues to train.

All year round, he’s in the Splash Palace pool by 6.30 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

I’m just slow and regular, nothing too flash, but I keep at it.”


Before the health problems, he’d swim 90 lengths a morning but he no longer has the strength. Forty lengths are equal to one kilometre.

About six months after his rehabilitation, he started doing a few lengths and gradually increased this.

Now, three times a week, Terry swims 50 lengths freestyle non-stop and slowly, then four against the clock.

“You’ve got to push yourself – no one else can help you but yourself.”

He says you get into a rhythm and remain in that. People of various ages are training for all types of swimming alongside him.

“I see them whizzing past but it doesn’t worry me in the slightest.”

He says setting goals is vital and as long as you do your best, the level of success isn’t so important.

“You have a personal best target – if you knock one second off when training, that is a huge achievement.”

Setting achievable goals

To overcome any hurdle, Terry advises setting achievable goals and working hard. He says the results will follow.

The big trick is, don’t bite off more than you can chew.”


He maintains his attitude by sticking to a routine and varying it to avoid boredom.

“A person’s attitude is very important. You need to be positive [and] look ahead because that’s where the opportunities lie. And develop a routine.”

He’s grateful for each morning; watching the sunrise and greeting the day well.

“Thank your lucky stars for each day that’s there.”

Terry exercises regularly and says his reasonable fitness level would help if he fell seriously ill again.

He’d entered six events in the 80-plus age group of the Masters games, which were due to be held in Dunedin in February.

More than 3400 sportspeople were expected to compete in them before the Covid-19 red traffic light setting forced their cancellation.

While Terry enjoyed participating in the 2014 and 2020 games in the city, he’s pragmatic about their 2022 cancellation.

“I accept that because I’ve got a good appreciation of the issues surrounding Covid-19 and the health system.”

Although he doesn’t have the energy to take on anything more competitive than pool swimming, he would like to try ocean swimming.

“At my age, the mind’s willing but the body doesn’t always respond.”

There is one more mountain he’s keen to climb, though. About 50 years ago, he and his mates climbed a 1219 m mountain in The Remarkables range near Queenstown.

Setting goals: already in his eighties, Terry wants to climb a mountain in The Remarkables range again. Photo: Kel Fowler

“This is a long-term goal. I’d like to think I’d be able to do that again one day.”

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For further information:

About the New Zealand Masters Games


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