In Praise of Exercise, the True ‘Fountain of Youth’

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When I took the swim test as an incoming freshman, I had no idea how vital the sport would become to me later in life

By Abdullah Paksoy ’76, MEng ’77

Abdullah Paksoy

The first time I came to Ithaca was in September 1972, to register at Cornell. Barton Hall was packed with incoming freshmen; my big surprise was that we had to prove we could swim.

The writing on the Teagle Hall wall was something like this: “Our bodies are vessels that carry us through life, and we need to take good care of them.”

I didn't suspect then the impact those words would have on me throughout my life.

Non-swimmers had to register for a swimming phys ed class; I passed the test, so I was exempted.

It was amusing to learn that one could not get a Cornell diploma without learning how to swim.

The classes I took to satisfy the phys ed requirement, like scuba and basketball, were fun. It was a good thing Teagle Pool and Barton Hall were near the Engineering Quad; I swam and played ball at every opportunity. Spring fever pushed people outdoors to lawns, lakes, parks, and waterfalls after long white winters of New York.

Ten hectic semesters and five years later, I returned to my hometown of Adana, Turkey, close to the salty Mediterranean Sea, where the water temperature reaches 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) in summer.

It was amusing to learn that one could not get a Cornell diploma without learning how to swim.

Fast forward 10 years. I had married in 1983. Our son Mustafa was born, followed by daughter Elif. I had to provide. My epiphany about the body as a “vessel” popped up 13 years after my freshman year: I had to take better care of myself and my family, and I began making more time for sports.

I stopped working on Saturdays, as I met for basketball with high school buddies in the gym of our boarding school alma mater. Kebab lunch afterwards was a bonus.

Fast forward another 30 years. Our nest is empty. After three decades of farming, contracting, and design, I slowed down—only to go on farming. New hobbies like carpentry and “softer” sports like cycling and swimming turned out to be a godsend.

The Turkish Olympic Committee organized the first Istanbul Intercontinental swim race in 1989. The Bosphorus—a major shipping channel, about 3 kilometers wide, that separates Europe from Asia—is closed to traffic for one midsummer Sunday each year.

A boat filled with people during a swim race
At a race on the Bosphorus in 2015.

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This major occasion was broadcast on live TV. I must have crossed over the intercontinental divide maybe a thousand times, but swimming across it; now, that was my challenge!

I was 60, and thought, “If 85-year-olds can do it, why not me?” I registered and ended up qualifying for the 2015 race with an 800-meter pool swim. Next came two months of intense training, up to a few days before the race.

Four of us—all men from my high school—finished on that Sunday morning, swimming 6.5 kilometers with the current from the Asian side to the European side, where the crowd was waiting.

Abdullah Paksoy and two other men at a swim race
Paksoy (left) after an event.

The real challenge was to stay on course and not get sucked up in the eddies and bends along the straits. It was exhilarating to conquer the channel—cause for celebration. Stamina as well as courage counts when you are in the water, taking thousands of steady strokes to the finish.

During the pandemic years, my wife and I picked up yoga—but swimming a kilometer a day became my meditation. The rhythm was soothing; counting laps, I could forget the things I had to face later. Morning swims really made my day.

When the Straits of Messina swim—between Sicily and Italy—resumed in 2022, I signed up. Stepping up my exercise gradually until I could cover 3 kilometers in an hour took me about three months.

There were only 16 swimmers; the group didn’t race, even yielding to a cruise ship during the crossing. All of us finished and celebrated over lunch, and certificates were handed out on the Torre Faro beach afterwards.

Five decades after that Cornell swim test, that locker room wall saying keeps coming back. Feeding the soul is not enough; we have to take care of our “vessels.” Keeping fit is a way of life! The young believe they are invincible. It takes them a while to realize that their bodies are the greatest instruments they shall ever own.

A group of people on the beach before a swim
With fellow participants before a swim.

I am still regularly swimming and enjoying playing ball and our Kebab ritual afterwards. The lamb may have too much fat, but who is perfect?

Many middle-aged friends eat badly, smoke, drink, and never exercise. Some start to do so, but too late. In contrast: I wish to be an 85-year-old with some bounce in my joints, who can still take on physical challenges.

I am happy when my “vessel” cruises smoothly—even in choppy seas.

A native of Turkey, Abdullah Paksoy ’76, MEng ’77, describes himself as a “civil engineer / farmer / carpenter / tinkerer.” He is the co-founder of Akpak Co., which was active in industrial construction for 25 years. He consults as a civil engineer, is an expert in solar cooking, has planted more than 15,000 citrus trees, and grows field crops. His current projects include designing and building a treehouse for his grandson.

All images provided.

Published October 24, 2022


Comments

  1. Susan Goodspeed Anderson, Class of 1961

    Enjoyable memory. As an 83 year old who detested physical education and formal sports and exercise, my phy ed requirements at Cornell were wonderful. I chose archery and modern dance. I have enjoyed canoeing and bicycling and hiking and walking ever since. Cornell, ’61, Arts and Science, English major

    • Abdullah Paksoy, Class of 1976

      Dear Susan
      Merhaba=Hello
      My inspiration was our 72 yr old high school physics teacher in 1970..a great Mr Tracy. Hope you inspire other youth as well

  2. Emin Ozgur, Class of 1997

    Lovely essay Apo Abi!

    I took skiing and ballroom dancing for my PE credits. Night skiing (Greek Peak) was not the best but I still use the ballroom dancing skills 25 years later (same for Wines 101).

  3. Dr. Houston H. Stokes PhD, Class of 1962

    I took extra Physical Ed classes at Cornell Took up long distant biking with family that was curtailed when I suffered a major stroke due to AFIB on the day after I turned 75. I was on the Economics faculty of the University of Illinois Chicago for 50 years and did a total of 22 years in the US Navy Reserve and on active duty. My Dad always told me “your body is the temple of your soul, treat it well.” He fought in WW I and WW II and died at 96 after a major stroke at 93. Both he and I exercised with golf and never smoked or drank. To this day I miss my days on the hill. My wife Diana and I live in South east Michigan on Lake Michigan.

  4. Marlene, Class of 2001

    Amazing story! Mr. Paksoy, you are an inspiration. I agree with you wholeheartedly about the importance of our vessels.

    I passed the swim test, but continued to take swim classes at Cornell. Twenty years later when I return to campus, I can still meet my swim instructor. And she is still teaching 🙂

    Isn’t it wonderful how even the simple requirements at Cornell has had lifelong effects on our lives.

  5. Carol Benson Antos, Class of 1977

    Dear Apo, How wonderful to read your inspiring story and to know that you are happy and healthy! David and I kept fit while living on our sailboat the past two years, sailing to the Bahamas and back. We dream of sailing the Turkish and Croatian coastlines. We’d love to see you again if you ever travel back to Boston!!

  6. Barbara Segen Gould, Class of 1968

    I could not swim when I arrived at Cornell. Hence I was required to take swimming as my Phys Ed. It took me two semesters to be able to complete the swimming test so that I could graduate. My instructor held a boom over my head all the way through four laps using two different strokes so that if I got into trouble I could grab it. I do swim by choice occasionally now, but I have to say that I enjoy other forms of exercise more. I wholeheartedly agree, however, that exercise is the silver bullet to staying young and vital.

  7. Arthur Schwope, Class of 1970

    I did not pass the incoming freshman swim test and had to take the swimming class. As I remember it, we wore no bathing suits. Could that be true?

  8. Jon Stoumen, Class of 1965

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring and courageous open water swimming achievements.

    For me, it’s running. This July, I ran my first 1/2 Marathon In Truckee, CA. At 79, I was the oldest participant and came in second in my age group. Aerobic exercise is a way to celebrate our life in the moment.

    • Lucy Guerlac, Class of 1964

      Hi Jon, For me it’s daily Silver Sneakers classes and gardening. I didn’t realize we were the exact same age (since you were dating my younger sister!).

  9. Nancy Kollisch, Class of 1972

    Great story
    Go Big Red

  10. Peter Halamek, Class of 1977

    Dear Abdullah, thank you for sharing your inspiring story! I also passed the swimming test – like you did – so I took badminton and golf to satisfy the PE requirement. — I still swim today, every day, albeit just “recreationally”, if you will … after a full day of work as a spaceflight engineer / scientist at Blue Origin. — I have many fond memories of my Cornell years, including the one year I lived at Telluride House. Best wishes to you, Peter in Seattle

  11. Alan M Cody, Class of 1969

    Wonderful story! I’ve been swimming for years and always enjoy the reunion swim meets in Teagle. Every time I swim, it refreshes me mentally and physically and my wife, Edith, always encourages me to go. Thank you, Abdullah for this story and I hope it encourages others to keep exercising. It is very important.

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