On an overcast Sunday morning in early June, Conner Bailey swam 9.2 miles, nonstop, down the Tennessee River, to a first-place finish in U.S. Masters Swimming’s 2017 Ultramarathon Distance Open Water National Championship in Chattanooga.
And, get this. With a time of 2:42:55, the Auburn University rural sociology professor emeritus reached the finish line a staggering 25 minutes and 55 seconds ahead of his closest, and only, competitor in the 70-74 age bracket and left 10 men who were 10 and 20 years his junior in his wake.
Not too shabby for an old guy. Especially an old guy who, 18 months before, had been dogpaddling upstream in a race for his life.
Obviously, Bailey is an avid swimmer. Always has been. Blame it on his West Coast roots. Not too many years after he took his first wobbly steps, he was body-surfing with his buddies in the waves off the coast of his native Malibu.
He began swimming competitively in the seventh grade and continued on through his senior year in high school.
“As a kid, I was an OK swimmer, but when I was 12, a friend of mine whose dad worked in downtown L.A. got me into swimming with the L.A. Athletic Club, where all these famous swimmers went,” Bailey says. “At 14, I was working out with swimmers who were world champions, who’d won gold and silver and bronze medals in the Olympics.”
That was a powerful motivator, and for the next few years, he was training 50 weeks a year and racing almost every weekend.
We’re talking swimming in excess. Not surprisingly, the sport began to lose its luster.
And, too, “I discovered books, and girls,” Bailey says. “Mostly girls.”
By the end of high school, he was burned out on swimming, so much so that when it came time to choose a college, he had three criteria: It had to be in town at the opposite end of the size spectrum from the Los Angeles megalopolis, it had to be far enough from home that his parents couldn’t just happen to drop by and it could not have a swim team.
That’s how he wound up at Southern Oregon College. It was 800 miles from his folks, it was in a town of about 11,000 and it didn’t even have a pool, much less a swim team.
He graduated in history in 1968, served three years in the Peace Corps in Malaysia and then returned to that country for his master’s thesis research as an Ohio University graduate student in international affairs.
“I decided in graduate school that I was a committed academic,” he says, and that decision led him to Cornell University for his Ph.D. It was at Cornell that he first heard of an emerging field of study called rural sociology, and he quickly realized he’d found his calling.
“I remember thinking ‘Wow! They’ve invented a new discipline for me!’ ” he says.
He received his doctorate in 1980 and worked as a social scientist in Indonesia and the Philippines with the World Fish Center and then at Woods Hole (Massachusetts) Oceanographic Institution before joining Auburn’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology in 1985 as an assistant professor. And in Auburn’s College of Agriculture he has remained, rising through the ranks to associate professor in ’88, full professor in ’94 and, as of Oct. 1, 2015, professor emeritus.
The research program he has built in his 32 years at Auburn is unparalleled. He’s been the lead scientist or co–principal investigator on research grants totaling more than $6.4 million, with projects focusing on community development in rural Alabama, socioeconomic relationships between timber dependency and poverty, social impacts of changing timberland ownership in Alabama and heir property issues. And through the years, students have consistently rated him as among the best in the classroom.
But back to swimming. Bailey admits he didn’t do much of it in the ’70s and ‘80s, other than recreationally. But in the early 1990s, he started feeling the pull of Auburn’s Martin Aquatic Center, and by 1993, he was training regularly there.
Today, he’s the veteran member of Auburn Masters Swimming, a club for competitive swimmers, triathletes and other serious swimmers on campus and community-wide. The club, part of U.S. Masters Swimming, has scheduled workouts at the center with qualified swim coaches six days a week.
In a typical year, he swims in five to eight competitions, including the intramural meet at Auburn, where he and his team race undergrads. He also hosts a two-day meet every February that draws 200 swimmers from all over the country, some well into their 90s.
But for Bailey, the 9.2-mile race in Chattanooga was the most significant, and not just because he won or because it was his longest ever.
“I didn’t do that (swim) to prove anything,” says the 71-year-old Bailey. “For me, it was life-affirming—to go from being near death a year and a half ago to being national champ in a pretty tough race.”
He’s referring to a chapter in his life that began in the midst of spring semester 2015, when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. But cancer wasn’t what nearly killed him. In fact, three rounds of chemo followed by a couple of surgical procedures, and he was cancer-free—and, from all indications, on the fast track to complete recovery.
Until Dec. 26, while he was on his way to San Francisco for a Bailey brothers’ reunion.
“It hit me on an airplane somewhere over Missouri,” he says. The “it” was sepsis, a potentially deadly bloodstream infection that, for him, may or may not have been related to the surgery. Whatever the culprit, his temperature shot up to 105.7 degrees. He was seriously sick.
He spent several days in ICU in a California hospital before being medevacked to UAB, where his surgeon is based. He was in the hospital for 12 days, and recovery was slow as molasses. Throughout his battle with cancer, even while on chemo, he had continued swimming at the aquatic center with Auburn Masters members. Not true with the sepsis.
“I was out of the hospital by mid-January, but I didn’t swim again until April (2016),” he says.
Bailey has never been one to preach to others about getting active and staying in tip-top shape, and he won’t start now. All he knows is, had it not been for his commitment to swimming, his story very well could have had a different ending.
“I never thought swimming was going to add years to my life, just that it was a way to improve the quality of my life while I’m around,” he says. “But I’m having to rethink that now.”