The elderly swimmer was caught off guard the first time it happened: a tide of Glacier Swim Club youth coming up to congratulate him after a race.
“When you’re racing against these kids as an adult, it’s kind of embarrassing,” Matt Rielly, 73, said. “Some of them will beat you and after the race they come up and congratulate you. But even kids that aren’t in the race come up and congratulate you.”
The post-race popularity is just one of many recent breakthroughs the retired helicopter pilot has experienced in the pool. Since he started showing up for lap swims at the start of last year, Rielly no longer uses a walker to compensate for a frail left leg and has become one of the state’s best all-around swimmers for his age group.
“People don’t recognize me anymore,” Rielly said.
Rielly worked for most of the last decade at Tristate Careflight, a critical care transport provider located in Bullhead City, Arizona. After retiring from the company in 2016, Rielly and his wife Marilee and moved back to Juneau, where he had previously worked in the helicopter industry and raised five children. All five of his kids, Sean, Jolene, Mattie, Collin and Brett, still lived in Juneau, along with 18 grandchildren. (Since 2016, two more grandchildren have entered the fold).
“Everybody said we did it backwards — you live in Alaska and you retire in Arizona; we lived in Arizona and we retired in Alaska,” Rielly said with a laugh. “So we sort of went backwards, but when you have that many kids and that many grandkids, you got to be there.”
However, after reuniting with his family, Rielly began to experience difficulties getting around.
While on the job decades ago as a paramedic firefighter in San Diego, Rielly was knocked off a loading dock from the sudden explosion of a 55-gallon drum. Over the next three years, Rielly underwent six knee surgeries to put his left leg back together, which was barely recognizable after the accident.
“I could see the bottom of my foot on my chest,” Rielly said.
The calamity had dramatically weakened his left leg.
“As you get older, injuries you have as a young man, those injuries kind of come back and they sort of raise their ugly head,” Rielly said. “I was just having a lot of difficulty with my left leg and it got to the point where I was using a walker and I was always afraid of falling because of the ice and snow. One day, I just decided I was going to start swimming and my wife and I would go to the pool. She would help me into the pool and out of the pool and she’d keep an eye on me while I’d swim. I just started swimming one lap, and then two laps, and then three laps.
“It’s not easy to get back into it after all those years.”
As a youth and young adult in Southern California, Rielly was a prolific swimmer and water polo player. But that was over 50 years earlier, and Rielly hadn’t done any swimming in the meantime.
Rielly said the first few weeks of swimming again were anything but glamorous, and he needed to take breaks after only one or two laps. But he was undeterred by his lack of stamina, and would always return for the next lap swim.
Pool users began to pick up on Rielly’ determination, which led to an invitation to join the swim club last March. GSC Masters practice multiple times per week, and Rielly said the accountability and support of his teammates took his swimming to the next level.
“I just really took off,” he said.
Fast forward to the present, and Rielly owns Alaska’s top-10 times in his age group in six different events: the 50 and 100-yard breaststroke, 200 and 400-yard freestyle and 100 IM 200 IM. Three of those times were recorded at last weekend’s Savannah Cayce Southeast Championships. There, Rielly could be spotted wearing a blue swim cap bearing the nickname “Bad Grandpa,” and high-fiving his competition.
“The kids love him,” GSC coach Scott Griffith said.
• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.