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Judge masters swimming and living

Judge Robert E. Beach, 78, takes a breather after his workout at North Shore Pool in St. Petersburg, where he was photographed for the cover. Beach took up swimming after he kicked his smoking habit.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Judge Robert E. Beach, 78, takes a breather after his workout at North Shore Pool in St. Petersburg, where he was photographed for the cover. Beach took up swimming after he kicked his smoking habit.

ST. PETERSBURG

On a balmy Saturday morning last month, he sat at a sidewalk cafe one block from his Beach Drive condo, marking his 78th birthday with a veggie omelet and a menu of amazing memories.

Welcome to the real Beach Drive — the adventurous spirit that has fueled Judge Robert E. Beach since his vagabond childhood, guided him to a career on the Florida bench and propelled him through the water as one of America's most distinguished masters swimmers.

The arc of his life has hardly been conventional, but then, not much about Bob Beach is.

He was a tough Santa Monica, Calif., teen who got into scrapes with the law and was kicked out of high school "for mouthing off."

He later put himself through college working as a bartender at a Tampa strip club, found his calling after graduating from Stetson College of Law in Gulfport, and took up swimming in his late 30s — after quitting chain-smoking cold turkey.

Beach also came within 2 miles of swimming across the English Channel, completed the Alcatraz-to-San Francisco swim, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and marked birthdays by traveling the world.

He has recorded those journeys by mailing out a holiday card that features photographs of him, in a Santa hat, at exotic locales.

For his card at age 72, there's Beach on a camel in Morocco and in front of a Tibetan palace. At 77, he's standing at a villa in Algeria and crossing the finish line of a 2.7-mile swim in California's Donner Lake — an All-American and Top 10 swimmer in the 75-79 age group.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world,'' Beach says. "I love my life."

The highlights of it could fill volumes, but here are some essentials — and his philosophy for getting the most out of every day.

No. 1: Mother knew best. A single mom who had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley but worked the night shift at an airplane factory, Dorothy Beach raised her young son with a sense of self-reliance and confidence.

Mom and son hit the road when Beach, born in Hollywood, was barely 6.

"I had no brothers or sisters and never knew my father, but my mom was a very bright lady and a women's libber before her time," he recalls.

"During the Depression and before World War II, she loved to travel. We didn't have any money. But we traveled all over the West, staying in rooming houses and trailers. We even lived in a tent in Flagstaff, Ariz., for six months.

"That's where I got the travel bug," he adds.

Not to mention his sense of independence. He constantly had to make new friends, enroll in new schools and rely on himself to get by. He read voraciously.

And he also got into trouble —"I was probably what we'd today call a juvenile delinquent" — finally prompting his mom to pack him off to military school. The discipline would serve him well years later.

"My mom had two messages for me: They can take everything away from you but not a college education. And, you have to do nine hours of work for eight hours' pay."

No. 2: Ditching the smokes. Cigarettes had dangled from his lips from the time he was a young teen. He smoked when he was hanging out in Malibu. He smoked while in the company of Johnny Weismuller, Ida Lupino and Greta Garbo; while flunking out after a semester at UC-Santa Barbara; and while bartending and partying in Vegas for several months.

The habit stuck with him when, at 21, he hitchhiked to Tampa. He got that college degree, from the University of Tampa in 1955.

Then he enrolled at Stetson and graduated in 1958. But the pressures of practicing law for nine years increased his nicotine craving.

"By 37, my lips were split and my fingers were yellow," Beach says. "The first thing I did in the morning was have a cigarette, and it was the last thing I did before going to sleep. I couldn't walk up a flight of stairs without huffing and puffing, and I was going to hell in a handbasket."

Determined to start down a new path toward improved health, he says he quit — just like that.

No. 3: Finding a passion. Actually, Beach found a handful. One was on the bench. In 1968, then-Gov. Claude Kirk appointed him a circuit court judge for Pinellas County. It was the start of a 25-year career that saw Beach elected five times without opposition.

He retired in 1993 but has spent the past 15 years as a senior circuit court judge, presiding over cases around the state.

Another passion he picked up was swimming. After kicking the cigarette habit, he read a book by an Air Force doctor that espoused the virtues of aerobic training and running. He tried it for a week but wound up sore — and frustrated.

A doctor friend suggested he try swimming, instead. "I discovered North Shore pool and I started swimming," Beach says.

He began there in a Red Cross program in which participants would get a certificate for swimming 50 miles, a quarter-mile at a time. "It took me two or three months to get up to a quarter of a mile," he relates. "The first lap — 25 yards — I was wiped out!"

But by age 40, in 1971, Beach was swimming a mile in 33 minutes. A Navy doctor who had been promoting swimming to stay in shape flew to St. Petersburg and coaxed Beach into staging a meet for people 40 and older.

"We drew 17 people," he recalls.

But it was officially the second masters swim meet ever held in the United States, and today the event is said to be the longest-running masters swim meet in the world. The word "masters'' now refers to swimmers 18 and older.

Beach played a key role in the national growth of what is now U.S. Masters Swimming, serving as its first vice chairman. He remains one of the top competitors in his age range and is known at meets around the world.

The only thing more important for him now, he says, is family. Married and divorced twice, Beach has four children, and treasures being a grandfather and great-grandfather.

For the past 19 years, Beach has enjoyed a bachelor's life, with a home in St. Petersburg and another in Reno, Nev.

He loves old styles — from his big-band music collection to his pair of vintage Porsche convertibles (one in Florida, one in Nevada). And when he's on the road in the United States and abroad, he always sleeps in his cars to cut down on expenses.

His words of wisdom: "Stay in good shape through sports — I like swimming because it's easy on the joints and you can do it until you die.

"Drink in moderation. Stay active in a lot of things. I'll say this in capital letters, DON'T SMOKE.

"And life will be good."

Dave Scheiber can be reached at scheiber@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8541.

Dive right in

Masters swimming refers to programs for those 18 and older. About 42,000 people are members of the nonprofit U.S. Masters Swimming organization, which promotes swimming for fitness.

About one-third of the members choose to compete in more than 20 events within pools, plus swimming in open waters. Competitors race against each other according to ability, not age, but records are kept in age groupings that go in five-year incrementals, up to 95 and older.

The organization has about a dozen clubs in the Tampa Bay area. The clubs charge membership fees and offer organized workout programs. For more information on the organization and local clubs, go to www.usms.org.

Judge masters swimming and living 08/25/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 8:05pm]

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