BINGHAMTON - Joel Schwartz loved to swim and was proud of winning competitions. At age 72, the Nyack man served as a role model for physical fitness.
His friends and fellow swimmers said yesterday that they were shocked to learn Schwartz died Friday night after suffering a heart attack while competing in a 1,500-meter freestyle swim at the Empire State Games.
Schwartz was leading the race after 35 of the 60 laps when he was stricken in the pool at Owego Free Academy High School.
"I am so sad to hear about Joel," said Kim Coons, who swam with Schwartz at the Rockland YMCA on Broadway in Nyack.
"He was a great swimmer, and he took it very seriously," Coons said. "Joel was a great athlete, but even more importantly, he was a tremendous human being."
Coons, 52, a member of the YMCA's board of directors, called Schwartz a role model, citing his dedication not only to swimming but also to staying fit.
"He showed me how to stay in shape and remain competitive as I age," Coons said. "He had such a positive attitude. Any day I ran into Joel at the pool was going to be a good day for me."
Paul McClintock, the Empire State Games Masters swimming coordinator, said Schwartz led the 60-lap race for the 70-74 age group.
"He got to the shallow end of the pool and rolled over on his back in obvious distress," McClintock said. "The lap counter immediately pulled him over to the wall, and the lifeguards and EMT ran to him, took him out of the pool and immediately began CPR. They also had a defibrillator with them."
Owego's Fire Department and emergency squad responded to the high school pool around 7:35 p.m., Fire Chief Tom Taft Jr. said.
Taft did not identify the lifeguards but said, "Basically, they were certified and were high school students. They appeared to have done a great job, anything anybody could have done."
Schwartz was then taken to Wilson Regional Medical Center in Johnson City, where he was pronounced dead, said Fred Smith, executive director of the Empire State Games.
"We had an emergency life-support vehicle at the site, as we do at many of the events," Smith said.
Schwartz was the first athlete and third person to die in the 31-year history of the Empire State Games.
In 1986 at Buffalo, the Western region director Herb Moles suffered a heart attack right after the opening ceremonies ended. In the 1989 Games at Ithaca, a parent of a track athlete died.
McClintock said a moment of silence was observed prior to the 800 meters, in which Schwartz was scheduled to swim.
He also explained to the Masters swimmers in the session what had happened.
"This certainly casts a pall over the general actions of the athletes," McClintock said. "I had just spoke to him a few weeks ago, and I talked to him before the race. He seemed to be in good spirits and prepared for it."
Exercise was an important part of his life, as he swam and worked out in the fitness room at the YMCA, said Chuck Maze, the YMCA's chief executive officer.
Schwartz told The Journal News in an interview this year that he enjoyed training at the YMCA. He said he enjoyed the low-key atmosphere and that there was no informal competition to see who could lift the most weight.
Schwartz, a retired businessman, set an example for others at the YMCA.
He regularly swam the 60- by 20-foot pool. He used the exercise room with his wife, Debbie.
"He was well-liked by all, and I think he was one of the most physically fit YMCA members," Maze said. "We're proud of his many medals at the Empire State Games. He set an outstanding example for other members to become physically fit."
Schwartz also volunteered his time to raise money for the YMCA and awareness for physical fitness.
He and Coons recently competed in a biathlon sponsored by Toga Bikes to raise money for the Y and its aquatics program, which is used by adults, teenagers and children.
"He has such a great sense of humor and gave of himself to others," Coons said. "He was in such great shape. That's what makes this surprising. He will be missed by the community."