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If Jae Howell had been willing to devote the time she puts into swimming to some other pursuit, she'd "be a nuclear physicist by now."

But the hours of hard work have paid off for the 67-year-old swimmer from Walnut Creek, Calif. She recently won three gold medals in the Pan-Pacific Games. Now, she's entered in several categories of competition at the Huntsman Chemical World Senior Games, which end in St. George next week.The events, which are open to all athletes over age 50, are as competitive as any you'd see anywhere. The participants spend hours each week preparing for competition.

But there's an added charm. No one is turned away because of little things - like a lack of entrants in a given event. When no one registered to swim against a 79-year-old woman in the backstroke event, it didn't matter. She swam to beat her own time and everyone yelled and clapped and cheered her on.

The World Games present sportsmanship at its best. When the meet is over, the winner and the loser can be found sitting in lounge chairs exchanging advice and telling war stories about previous meets.

Obel James returned to swimming in 1985, after a 40-year hiatus. The Memphis, Tenn., native now swims six days a week for fun and exercise. And he loves the "thrill of the battle." Last year he took three first-place awards and one second-place honor in the 75-79 age category.

Traveling to the meets is a big deal for James, just as it is for other senior athletes. He competed in the Senior Olympics and in southwest and southeast regional conferences. In the southeast conference, he broke three records.

Dennis O'Brien of Durango, Colo., considers himself the "old man" of the 50-54 category. There, he's taken national titles in the 50-meter butterfly and in the 100-meter.

"I'm looking forward to my next birthday. I'll be 55, so I'll be young again. A new category and a new kid on the block."

The swimmers are particularly easy to spot at the Senior World Games. They have strong, firm legs and smooth backs and arms. Time seems to have stood still for them, the aging process held at bay by sheer hard work.

"I'm amazed at how young everyone looks," said Sam Smith, Salt Lake City. "And boy, are they ever smooth when they hit the water."