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Mr. Timmerman smiles before his 50m backstroke heat at the Catherine Kerr Pentathlon in Winnipeg’s Pan Am Pool on Jan. 24.

Trevor Hagan

In his long, industrious life, Jaring Timmerman was a Royal Canadian Air Force veteran, a dedicated member of the Salvation Army and an insurance executive. He witnessed two world wars and the rise and fall of nazism and communism.

But it was as a centenarian athlete that Mr. Timmerman gained fame. In the last three decades of his life, the Winnipeg resident won more than 160 swimming medals and set six world records.

Mr. Timmerman died on Wednesday at Grace Hospital in Winnipeg. He was 105. "[His] heart stopped beating, and his marvellous life on this earth ended," his family said in a death notice e-mailed to The Globe and Mail.

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The son of Dutch immigrants who tried without success to farm in northern Manitoba, he found himself in the autumn of his life being celebrated in newspapers, magazines and television.

One of his sons, Don, recalled that his father would be surrounded at the pool by younger swimmers seeking an autograph or a photo. "It was very encouraging to see the public recognize the many good things he did," Don Timmerman said in an interview Thursday.

As a toddler, Jaring Timmerman almost drowned in his native Netherlands. He was four years old and on the deck of his father's boat on the Rhine when he jumped overboard, lured by a band sailing past on another boat.

Mr. Timmerman only started competitive swimming at the age of 78, when he was a retired snowbird.

He credited his longevity to what he called GEDS – genes, exercise, diet and spirit. His own parents lived until their 80s. And even before he began swimming, he kept active. His son Don recalled being regularly awakened at the family cottage by the thumping feet of his father doing his morning RCAF callisthenics.

Mr. Timmerman lived frugally. He watched what he ate, avoiding fat. When served apple pie, he would leave the crust, his son remembered. He was also a devout man who said he kept a positive attitude and "good relationship with my Maker."

He was a second-generation member of the Salvation Army, the Protestant denomination known for its charitable work for the poor. He was active in the church through his life, endowing a bursary for the Salvation Army College for Officer Training.

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Salvationists shun alcohol and tobacco but Mr. Timmerman admitted he was tempted to smoke while he was in the air force. He had seen pilots taking drags on their cigarettes so he bought a pack and lit up.

"I took one drag and it tasted like horse manure. So I threw them in the snow bank," he recalled in a 2000 Winnipeg Free Press article.

Mr. Timmerman was born in Rotterdam on Feb. 11, 1909, one of six children of Hendrik and Wietske Timmerman. Hendrik was a ship captain, and himself the son of a cargo-boat owner. The pivotal moment of Hendrik's life was when he joined the Salvation Army after attending an open-air worship service. He married a fellow Salvationist and became a corps sergeant-major, an important lay rank.

The family immigrated to Canada in 1913 to farm in Hilbre, a hamlet about 120 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Hilbre had been settled only a year earlier, after a railway point had been established. According to the rural municipality of Grahamdale, which now encompasses the area, conditions were so rough that horses had to wade in waist-deep water and settlers had to carry smudge pails – smouldering buckets of burning manure – to smoke away the mosquitoes.

Finding the land too rocky to farm, the Timmermans left after six months and resettled in Winnipeg. They lived modestly. There was no running water, so once a week Jaring's mother sent him to the Pritchard public baths. Hendrik worked as a custodian at a senior's home and then at the Grace Hospital, where his son would die nearly a century later.

The family was devout. Mr. Timmerman later recalled how he and his siblings sometimes couldn't worship at church because it was too full, so they would then play-act their own version of the service at home.

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He started working at 16 as an office boy. According to a story in the Salvationist magazine, he also eagerly volunteered to help elevator repair crews in the summer. "Well, that just about killed me," Mr. Timmerman told Salvationist. "We'd start at seven o'clock in the morning and we'd finish at nine at night. They were long days."

He married in 1933, became a father and briefly lived in Wadena, Sask., where he worked as a grain elevator agent. Thanks to correspondence courses, he became an accountant and got a job at Grain Insurance & Guarantee Co. in Winnipeg.

During the Second World War, he served with the RCAF in Europe, flying 31 missions over Germany as a navigator on an Avro Lancaster heavy bomber.

After the war ended, he returned to Grain Insurance, eventually becoming company president before retiring in 1974.

It was in 1987, when he was 78, that he got into competitive swimming. He was wintering in Arizona with his wife, Gladys, who noticed a newspaper item about the Senior Olympics. He entered the 200-metre freestyle and, to his surprise, won the gold medal.

"I thought I wouldn't stand a chance … they were all ex-college champions," he later told the Free Press. "Lo and behold, if I didn't get gold."

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For the next quarter century, he would accumulate records and wins. Last January, he set two world records in a new category for swimmers aged 105 to 109, in the 50-metre freestyle and 50-metre backstroke events.

Mr. Timmerman leaves a daughter, Donna Klassen, two sons, Bruce and Don and two stepdaughters, Barb Brose and Judy Flaman. He was predeceased by his first wife, Bessie, to whom he was married 46 years, and by his second wife, Gladys, who was with him for 29 years.

"His legacy will live on, as we remember a true gentleman who showed us all how to live well to the very end," his family said in the notice.

To submit an I Remember: obit@globeandmail.com

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