Every morning between 7:30 and 8, Jane Josephs pulls her bright orange Fiat into the parking lot of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase YMCA. Once inside, she spends 20 minutes on the weight machines, then goes to the pool for half an hour to do her flexibility exercises.
She also attends three water aerobics classes every week, and — after her Y workout is over — often heads to an indoor ice rink for a half-hour of skating.
“I do it because I enjoy it, and it keeps me going,” she says of her fitness regimen. “I’ve been exercising my whole life.”
It seems to have made a difference, as hers has been a very long life.
Josephs is 90.
It is not an exaggeration to describe her as a Y icon. She has spent more than half a century there as a member, volunteer, swim instructor and, for several years, assistant aquatics director. Almost everyone knows her, and she inspires them.
“She’s my hero, a poster child for healthy aging,” says Eileen Rogers Orfalea, 60, of Chevy Chase, a real estate agent who swims at the Y every morning. “I want to be just like her.”
At the Y, Josephs has taught swimming to hundreds of children, many of them now adults with children and grandchildren of their own. “I was this scared little 9-year-old fourth-grader, but Jane was so confident and enthusiastic, she made us all want to get into the water,” says Carla Larrick, 60, vice president of operations for the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington. “I learned all the strokes from her.”
Josephs created many specialty water classes, including workouts for pregnant women and for people with arthritis and bad backs. For 20 years, she ran the same water aerobics class she now attends. She has taught adults, some of whom had never been in the water, how to swim.
“She was asked many times to be the aquatics director but turned it down,” Larrick says. “She said she wanted to teach and work with people in the water. There is no one who has touched as many children and adults’ lives in the pool as Jane.”
Remarkably, Josephs suffers from a nonsmokers’ form of lung cancer (she has never touched a cigarette), diagnosed in 2013, that has spread to her bones. Oral chemotherapy and periodic infusions to strengthen her bones have kept her symptoms under control, enabling her to keep exercising. In 2003, she was treated for breast cancer.
Not only do her regular workouts make her feel better, but she’s convinced they are also in large part responsible for her longevity. She shows none of the usual signs of decline. Her vision and hearing are good, her back is straight (no osteoporosis), and her mind is sharp.
She has had only two broken bones in her life, both while ice skating. “I broke my wrist in 1997 when I ran into the teacher, and I broke my ankle as a teenager,” she says.
She also credits her busy lifestyle outside the Y for her aging well. She belongs to numerous organizations, including Hadassah, the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women and several book clubs. She is active in her synagogue and frequently goes to concerts and the theater. When she’s absent from the Y for any stretch of time, it’s usually because she’s at the beach or on a cruise.
She was gone from the Y for health reasons only once in recent years, for several weeks last spring when her oral medication stopped working. She had difficulty breathing. Her physician put her on a new drug, which has been very effective.
“I feel very fortunate that I’m doing so well,” she says. “I’m not doing as much as I used to — because of the cancer, I don’t have as much energy as before — but I have more energy than my kids.”
One of her two daughters confirms this. “She’s fitter than I am,” says Abby Donnelly, 61, a retired Wayne State University police officer who lives in a Detroit suburb. “She’s the Energizer Bunny.”
Apparently, she’s always been that way. “When I would come home from school, it wasn’t ‘sit down and do your homework.’ Instead, she’d say, ‘Let’s go swimming,’ ” Donnelly says. “When we went shopping at Montgomery Mall, she’d hear some music over the loudspeaker that she liked, and she would say, ‘Oh, that would be so good for my class.’ And then she would start leaping. There we were, in the mall with our leaping mother, who’s shouting: ‘Leap with me, leap with me!’”
Jane Albert was born Oct. 11, 1926, and grew up in New Jersey. During her high school years, she played soccer, basketball, baseball, golf, tennis and field hockey. But swimming was always her passion. “She swam all through college, and swam pretty much up until the week before I was born,” Donnelly says. She laughs. “I’m not sure they even allowed pregnant women in bathing suits back then,” she says.
Josephs graduated from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., a women’s school, where she studied biology and chemistry and where a friend introduced her to Melvin Josephs. “We met over an ice cream soda one afternoon,” she recalls. “Then we had a real date in the evening.”
They married in 1948. He was a plant physiologist who worked for the American Chemical Society. She was a chemist who worked for an antibiotics manufacturer. They were married for 49 years, until he died of pancreatic cancer in 1997.
Over the years, they lived in Philadelphia, Washington and Midland, Mich., before moving permanently back to the Washington area in 1963. “I was looking for a part-time job, and the YMCA was a wonderful part-time job,” she says. She started teaching there in 1966.
Although she retired from the Y in 1992, she still worked as a substitute swim teacher until last May. “She doesn’t look 90. She doesn’t act 90,” Larrick says. “I’m convinced that everything she has done in fitness has brought her to where she is today.”
During the brief time last spring when Josephs was ailing, her daughters insisted she get a handicap tag for her car. Josephs wouldn’t hear of it.
“We had to convince her,” Donnelly says. “We told her to put it in her glove compartment if she wanted to, but we were going to get it for her anyway.”
As they expected, it went straight into the glove compartment. “That’s for people who really need it, and I don’t,” Josephs told her daughters. “I can walk.”