Marilyn Kuhns says she’s definitely a fighter, but not a hard-core competitor.
Having coped successfully with several health challenges, the 72-year-old Bellingham resident has learned to love swimming for the joy of fitness and fun.
Kuhns didn’t learn to swim until her mid-30s, but she finished fourth in the 65-69 women’s age group in the 200-yard backstroke at the 2010 Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah.
“I also entered the 50 and 100 races and didn’t do anything,” she says. “Then, when I finished the 200, (family and friends) were crying when I got out of the pool. I was stunned to learn I finished fourth.”
In other words, a woman who had suffered from the debilitating autoimmune disease myasthenia gravis since her late 20s — not to mention surviving a life-threatening heart condition in her early 60s — finished one spot away from a national medal. Despite her strong finish, she hasn’t returned to the Huntsman Games.
“I have many interests,” she says, “and I don’t want my vacation to be in the same place every year.”
But she does swim an hour daily at Bellingham Athletic Club, and vows she always will.
A lifelong Bellingham resident, Kuhns feels blessed to have her family in the area. She and her husband, retired commercial fisherman Jerry Kuhns, are the parents of daughter Lisa Clarkson and son Gerald Kuhns, the grandparents of four, and the great-grandparents of two.
Along with swimming, another passion of Kuhns’ has been working with floral arrangements. After studying to enter the profession, she worked 17 years full-time for Bellingham florist I.V. Wilson, and is now in her 16th year of part-time work at A New Leaf, in downtown Bellingham.
“We have a saying,” Kuhns says: “Old florists never die; we just make other arrangements.”
I went for several years, trying to find out what was wrong with me.
Marilyn Kuhns, about her myasthenia gravis
Kuhns will never forget the frustrations she endured in her late 20s, when she was a young mother and her life changed forever.
“I began to feel the effects of myasthenia gravis, a neural muscular disease that wasn’t well known in the early 1970s,” she says. “I began to feel extreme fatigue. It got so bad I couldn’t lift my arms to brush my hair.”
“I went for several years, trying to find out what was wrong with me,” she says. “Sometimes, I was told it was all in my head. I went to a lot of doctors, but nobody had dealt with it much.”
She refused to quit fighting, and in 1974 was directed to a knowledgeable local doctor, David Jones.
“Dr. Jones was an internist and had become familiar with myasthenia gravis at a clinic in Portland,” Kuhns says. “He gave me the injection of a diagnostic drug. I immediately felt better. Later, I underwent a process with a surgeon involving removal of the thymus gland, just above the heart. When I woke up, I felt incredibly better.”
Several years later, her children agreed they would learn to swim if she would too. Wonder of wonders, she recalls, learning to swim at about age 35 was a revelation in fitness.
Another health challenge could have killed her in 2006, when she had to be treated for a pulmonary embolism as part of a serious heart condition.
“After I recovered, a longtime friend from my school days, Ray Hall, gave me a swimming gift, a two-month pass to the BAC, as a bridge to membership as part of Medicare,” Kuhns says. “When I got into the water, after being away from swimming for years, I discovered I felt liberated.
“He later urged me to try the Huntsman Games. I told myself, ‘Why not?’”
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham writer.