Outside the Box Training: An Unusual Birthday Butterfly Set


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Each month we take a look at unusual or interesting training stories from around the country. This month, we take a look at a very fun – and difficult – birthday challenge. If you have any interesting or unusual training stories, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com. 

Some people go skydiving. Other people go white water rafting. Birthdays have long been a celebration not just of another year passed, but another year alive. And many different people have different “birthday challenges,” but recently, I heard of one such swimming-related birthday challenge that took the cake. (Pun intended.)

For his 47th birthday, Iowa Flyers head coach and swimmer Robert Pinter aimed to swim 47x100s.


What began as a birthday set seven years ago has now turned into tradition, one in which Robert attempts to rally other swimmers to join alongside him. For his 40th, he swam 40x100s. For his 41st, he swam 41x100s. And each year he gets older, he adds one more 100. He does them on a two-minute interval. And while he didn’t do this to necessarily get attention or acclaim from it, this birthday set is just too cool not to post today.

Recently, I asked Robert a few questions to get to the bottom of this birthday challenge. Here are his responses below. Enjoy!

MG: When did this birthday set begin?
The set began as a challenge when I turned 40.

Why did it begin? Was there something specific that caused you to start doing this?
I am not sure exactly what prompted it… I know I spoke to someone trying to come up with a worthy challenge for my 40th so it may have been a small bet of sorts something like… "I know I can do that.” Then a year later I thought I should try it again but this time do one more. Then it was just what I did every year after that. It was my challenge.

OK… so why butterfly?
Butterfly is hard, many cannot do long butterfly sets and I have always had a knack for it. I was a 200 butterflyer and it is what I finaled in at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. I could always train fly. As a result I decided that a fly set would be a worthy challenge and one that people would look up to but one that I also could do.

Would you ever switch to a different stroke as you get older?
No, I will always try to do this set or a similar one butterfly. Changing the stroke would change the challenge and it would negate my advantage. I know many older swimmers who can do crazy freestyle sets. Not many that can do butterfly sets.

Does anyone do this with you? What is their reaction to this set?
I am a club coach and I now try to challenge my swimmers to do a butterfly set on my birthday or when we designate the challenge. It is now a team wide challenge and my elite swimmers who choose to participate will also do 100s and try to do their own age. Every year they must do one more. It helps them gain confidence that butterfly is not so hard and if they can do this they can swim any distance in butterfly. It also changes or at the least influences their training mentality and their attitude toward longer events and especially the 200 fly. We also challenge our younger swimmers to do this challenge. 11 and over ages can choose to do 50s x their age and 10 and unders can do 25s x their age.

It is a great event at our pool. Everyone who cannot do it cheers for the others. When we finish they are excited and proud. Some who have not seen it done or see what I do have reserved admiration for it I think. I am sure some think I am crazy for putting myself through this.

Will you tweak this set as you get older?
Common sense tells me that I will have to tweak it. So far I was able to stick to my rules; can’t break my stroke (it must be legal, turns too), gliding is allowed so long as it is a legal stroke and I do it on a 2 minute interval. I would think that the interval is the first thing I will tweak, hopefully it won’t be tomorrow. Then we will see. I don’t want to think about it now … I will take it one year at a time but I will do this for as long as I can.

Do you learn anything after you finish?
I am always amazed that I can do it. I always think I can but there is a point in the middle when I am not sure about it. I feel extremely accomplished afterwards and it feels great. I don’t make a big deal about it and I hope my swimmers see this. Great accomplishments are achieved in the shadows not in plain light. What I will accomplish tomorrow is a result of many years of training both the mind and the body and also the result of my last year of fitness both in and out of the pool. That is largely unseen. What is seen is the actual challenge but all the work is done by then.

What do younger swimmers think of this set?
I am not sure exactly but I would think they are impressed. Most could not do it.

Is this a way to inspire yourself?
Yes, both inspire myself and others.

Have you ever failed at this?
Not yet.

What are you going to do when you are 100?
First, I hope this will help me reach 100. :) Not the test itself but the lifestyle that I have to lead to stay in shape to do a set like this. Then as I said… one year at the time.

Beyond the logistics of the set, I've heard of people doing these types of birthday sets and workouts and things like that. A lot of people do wonderful things on their birthday to feel alive. You choose something very painful. Do you think that it's healthy to occasionally push your body to the max, feel some pain, and celebrate the awesome and wonderful things that the body can do?
I actually do not do this set because I search for pain. I dislike pain as much as the next guy. For me it is about the accomplishment and the journey there. It is my “yearly physical” if you will. I do agree that it is a celebration! I think it is what keeps me in the game. I do not want to destroy myself or others… quite the opposite. Interesting thing is that I have never been injured due to swimming. I have soreness and fatigue, even trigger points in my back a day or two after the swim but nothing that would qualify as an injury.

Is this your way of proving to yourself that you are alive?
I don’t think of it that way but… sure. I also run, bike and lift. I have done three Ironmans and I do run half marathons from time to time as well. I recently started to compete in Masters meets as well. I have many outlets but I am by far the best at swimming. That’s very rewarding and worth celebrating!

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