If you’re fortunate enough to be swimming with an organized USMS program, complete with teammates and a coach, you’re experiencing Masters Swimming at its best. An organized club leader creates an environment in which several other things can occur.
For starters, just having someone who’s made the commitment to get up earlier than early, to beat the swimmers to the pool and get things ready for morning practice, is often underappreciated. If you’ve ever swum in a program with no coach, or swum with a coach with spotty attendance, you know what I mean. If you get to the pool and get to jump in and start swimming—without wrestling tarps or dragging lane lines—all the more fortunate you are.
Some coaches are swimmers themselves, and like to lead by example. Some do their best work without ever getting in the water. Most Masters coaches I’ve met have one thing in common: They derive a profound sense of accomplishment from helping their swimmers succeed.
And success comes in different flavors.
Whether you’re learning breaststroke for the first time or training to break a world record, a good coach approaches all your goals with equal zeal. Whether you show up five days a week and grind out every length with gusto or a few times a month as respite from a crazy schedule because being in the water is the only time you get to relax and you just want to float up and down the lane in a meditative daze, a good Masters coach is there for you. A great Masters coach accepts that these situations can occur for the same person.
This kind of support has a trickle-down effect. In my experience, there isn’t a friendlier bunch of people than a Masters swim team, and a lot of that stems from good leadership. A smart coach taps the talent on the team for tasks that give rise to a vibrant social network, one that transcends scoring points at a championship meet and puts as much emphasis on each meet day’s after-party.
And since swimmers are the nicest people on the planet, I don’t need to remind you to thank your coach—you probably already have. Whether you show your appreciation with home-baked goodies and gift cards or a smile and thanks after a workout, a good Masters coach needs to know how much your swimming experience means to you. Words and deeds that translate to “Thanks, Coach!” are what keep this cycle going.
Thanks to all the great coaches who are making magic happen on pool decks across the country.
At a recent coaches meeting at my home pool, we were strategizing relays for an upcoming meet and surveying our swimmers in their various age groups and our head coach said: “Our team is aging.” After glaring at him for saying the word “aging” on a day I didn’t feel like contemplating it (is there ever a good day?), I had to agree with him.
We looked over our roster and, yep, our teammates— friends we’d been swimming with for the past 10 years— were all, well, a decade older. Our graying gang was gaining crows feet and losing hair right along with the rest of world, and we had 10 years of event photos to prove it.
This trend isn’t unique to our club. Between 1987 and 1993, the three largest age groups in USMS were 25-29, 30-34, and 35-39. Between 1994 and 2001, that shifted to 35-39, 40-44, and 45-49. The 2000s saw two more shifts in the same direction, and in 2015, the three largest age groups in USMS were 45-49, 50-54, and 55-59.
You can see where I’m going with this. Of course our volunteer leadership and national membership team are crunching these and other numbers, including U.S. Census data, in an ongoing effort to better understand and serve our members. And our marketing team is taking a hard look at these numbers and other research—attracting younger members is an increasingly important endeavor for us.
But what are we doing, as individual swimmers, coaches, and clubs, to encourage younger adults to join us?
Other coaches I’ve asked this question of have creative solutions. Some have reduced rates so that younger swimmers who are paying off college loans or raising young families can afford dues. Others recruit newly minted adults from their age-group programs and returning college kids on break. Not only does this encourage younger swimmers to join USMS, it can also be an effective way to win meets—as every coach knows, the deeper your roster, the more categories in which you can score.
It’s essential and comforting that motivated and knowledgeable people are working on these important issues, but my mind tends to wander (more so nowadays) to the less tangible aspects of our subculture—the empirical ether where those of us who are fascinated by the sociological aspects of it all live.
And when I think of the younger swimmers who have joined us along the way— some of whom have become dear friends—I know that it’s just way more fun to be at swim practice and events with swimmers of all ages. It never occurs to me that there’s really much of an age difference until we’re at a restaurant and someone gets mistaken for someone else’s mother (please don’t ask).
And there are older swimmers with whom I’ve developed friendships. Not in the sometimes patronizing sense of older and wiser—but in the sense that I simply enjoy their company. Period.
So yes, we might be ripe for statistical speculation, but in a real-life, every-day, get-your-butt-to-workout, swim, laugh, gossip, party, prank-each-other sense, our community is stronger and much more enriching when we have swimmers of all ages sharing the fun, chaos, and beauty of it all.
Updated September 1st, 2016 at 10:27 AM by Editor
The other day, some friends and I were talking about how different our lives were since we’d started swimming. Everyone had a different story about how they’d come to join our local Masters group. I started because I wanted to do a triathlon but I hadn’t swum competitively since childhood. Someone else said his wife, an accomplished swimmer, had introduced him to it. Several joined because they saw adults in the pool when they took their kids to swim practice and thought, “Hey, that looks like fun.”
Regardless of how we came to be part of our local club, everyone agreed: Even if they couldn’t remember the exact moment or reason they decided to join, it was one of the best decisions they’d ever made. And they weren’t referring to winning medals or being in the best shape of their lives—they were referring to the people they’d met along the way.
In U.S. Masters Swimming’s annual push to have April recognized as Adult Learn-to-Swim Month, much is made about the physical health benefits of swimming. Not only because learning to swim can literally save your life, but also because once you learn, you can use it as a lifelong form of healthy exercise. With more adults jumping in the pool for the first time, it’s important for this information to get out.
But it’s really exciting to think about what these new swimmers will be talking about a few years down the road. Sure, if they stick with it, they’ll get healthier— that part’s inevitable. But if they’re fortunate enough to have a fun group of likeminded adults in their community, they’ll find out soon how the social benefits of swimming come into play.
For many, joining a Masters club is like a reunion—as if all the people from your planet have been waiting for you to arrive, but your ship was delayed, and then it took you a while to find them on Earth. I still haven’t figured out why this phenomenon persists, despite thinking, reading, and writing about it a lot.
The camaraderie thing is understandable for the lifelong swimmers—shared memories of green hair, predawn workouts, and wearing pajama pants to school—but what is it about discussions during the morning kick set on topics such as the welcome-to-50 colonoscopy that makes people open their homes and their hearts to people they’ve just met?
At the risk of too much navel-gazing, I continue to believe that there’s something special about the people who are attracted to this sport. Or maybe chlorine creates some sort of covalent bond, in which swimmers with completely different backgrounds share the awesomeness and generosity-of-spirit electrons. Who knows?
Regardless, I continue to enjoy meeting people from Planet Swim, even by just reading about them in the pages of SWIMMER and at usms.org. In this issue, we meet two swimmers, Mark Grashow (page 9) and Taylor Krauss (page 18), who both, for different reasons, felt pulled to the African continent. There they’ve made significant differences in the lives of those affected by extreme poverty or violence.
We also meet swimmer Nancy Prouty (page 30), a scientist studying deep-sea corals to unlock the mysteries of Earth’s oceans—a world farther away, in terms of understanding, than the moon.
At usms.org, you’ll meet swimmer Tselane Gardner, whose learn-to-swim journey led her from personal trauma to teaching others.
If you’re new to Masters Swimming, welcome; we’re glad you’re here.
Updated September 21st, 2015 at 08:32 AM by Editor
The screech of that 4:45 a.m. alarm is rude. Very rude. But you comply, trying to forget about what awaits you at the pool. If it’s suitable for aggressive workout swimming, the water will feel chilly. Jumping in it is the second worst moment of the day. The moon is out, your teammates resemble a zombie horde, and if you’d stayed in bed dreaming, you’d still be gliding across a polished wooden floor with a tall, handsome stranger, kickin’ it with a fly Viennese waltz.
So what to do when you <gasp> no longer want to get out of bed before dawn and jump into a cold pool? Is taking a break an option?
Nonswimmers have no problem filing Masters Swimming Burnout under first-world problems. “Why would anyone want to get up that early anyway? Now you can ____________ (garden, join your homeowners association, take polka lessons),” they suggest helpfully.
But once you’ve invited swimming into your life, it’s hard to politely show it to the door like a distant relative, effuse about what fun you’ve had, and tell it you can’t wait to see it again next year.
Many swimmers demarcate their lives into BS (before swimming) and S (swimming). In this lifelong sport, I’ve yet to meet anyone who wants to consider the permanence of AS (after swimming), so that leaves BTS (between swimming).
So how does one behave in a BTS period? For starters, you might want to consider how you’ll be meeting the exercise need that your swimmer’s appetite demands. Super. That will be running and cycling, with a side dish of P90X and a giant slice of Zumba for dessert, please.
What about reducing the number of practices? Maybe if you swim three times per week, instead of five or six? If you’re a sprinter, no problem, you might even maintain your current 50 freestyle time for another season with that plan, although you will lose your spot on the B relay. If you’re a distance swimmer, your prospects are more dismal. You’ll enter the 800 free at nationals with good intentions and feel terrible the entire time, especially when you see the scoreboard.
Even with a reduced schedule, you’ll still want to stay in touch with your swimming friends, especially your lanemates. But is it proper etiquette to show up for the Saturday post-workout breakfast with dry hair? It happened once on our team a few years ago. We still speak of it only in hushed tones.
What is it about swimming that makes it so hard to have a BTS hiatus? Is it the feeling we get at that perfect moment, right about the 175-yard mark after first jumping in? The chill is ebbing and your skin and soul are crackling—you’re about to reach the nirvana of weightlessness, perfect technique, and that delicate balance between effortless gliding and the grind awaiting you when the warm-up ends. (If only you could fast-forward to breakfast at that point.)
But you stick it out, and as the practice is ending, the sun is rising, the ghoulish pallor of the zombie horde has magically transformed into a flushed, healthy glow and bright smiles, and that amazing sense of accomplishment and renewed vigor reminds you that you could have been sweating it out in a hot yoga studio or waiting for your turn on the leg press at the gym.
But you weren’t, because you’re a swimmer. And whether you’re in the thick of a BTS period or not, once a swimmer, always a swimmer. This lifelong sport sticks around like a houseguest that never leaves. And in all honesty, that’s just the way we want it, isn’t it?
Updated July 1st, 2014 at 10:33 AM by Editor
Each time Spring or Summer Nationals rolls around, I get excited about the people I’m going to meet. Just walking around on deck at a USMS national meet is a treat—seeing old friends and making new ones—and experiencing a great facility, friendly volunteers, and fast swimming. The media staff stays busy interviewing swimmers for the daily recap videos and, although we’re working hard, we’re having a great time.
This year in Indy was no exception. Olympic silver medalist Emily Silver joined us for commentary and, in a special project made possible by USMS partner SwimOutlet.com, Silver and the legendary gold medalist and relay anchor extraordinaire, Jason Lezak (yes, that Jason Lezak!), dropped in on the social for a SwimOutlet.com Gold Medal Delivery.
Silver and Lezak delivered some great SwimOutlet.com swag and made time for autograph signing and photos with Masters swimmers, who lined up for a chance to meet them. As part of the video project, an exhibition 200-yard mixed freestyle relay was planned. We needed two Masters swimmers to pair with the Olympians, and I remembered a story I’d read on SwimmingWorld.com about a young swimmer who was battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma but who planned to swim in Indy.
Esmerelda Perez, just 18, was a graduating high school senior facing an operation to remove tumors in her chest cavity. She’d been through months of chemo and radiation, and doctors had implanted a port in her chest to deliver treatments. Through it all, she wanted to keep swimming. Swimming is what makes her happy. She’ll be swimming at Carthage College in the fall, but her immediate goal was USMS Spring Nationals.
Perez’s quiet maturity and deep love of the sport was inspiring to us all (her 25-something split on the relay was pretty amazing as well). She was thrilled at the opportunity to participate with these swimming heroes, but it was pretty clear that the Olympians were honored to swim on her relay.
The relay lasted only a few moments, but created a lasting impression. Silver led off, followed by Jon Shope, a local meet volunteer and lifelong swimmer. Perez swam third and, of course, Lezak was the anchor. Don’t miss the video at swimoutlet.com/goldmedaldelivery.
The project turned out to be more meaningful than we ever could have imagined and it brought together the best elements of a USMS national meet: sponsor support, great swimming, amazing venues and volunteers, and inspirational stories. Gold really was delivered in Indy, by all who participated.
Updated July 1st, 2014 at 10:36 AM by Editor
Variety, adventure, helping others, and inspiration. Mix well, repeat.
Each year my swimming friends and I combine an open water swim with some down time. In 2012, we chose the St. Croix Coral Reef Swim. Although our 5 miles was shortened to 2 miles after Tropical Storm Rafael blew through the racecourse, it was a great experience. The host resort, the Buccaneer, was a fantastic place for the race and the down time.
Future swims on our list include the Bermuda Round the Sound race and Race for the Conch Eco-SeaSwim in Turks and Caicos. We’ve even thrown some chillier swims up for discussion: This year’s 9+ Mile National Championship is in Vermont, and there’s chatter about putting together a relay for Lake Tahoe someday, or trying Alcatraz, the Tiburon Mile, La Jolla, Big Shoulders, or even one of the races in Alaska. The beauty is in the variety.
A variety of open water enthusiasts have contributed to our 2013 open water issue. Author and swimmer David McGlynn writes about swimming across Death’s Door in Lake Michigan. He makes the excellent point that many open water swims start with a group of people standing on a shoreline looking toward a distant shoreline with an adventurous eye.
It’s no doubt that a sense of adventure led USMS members Roberta St. Amour and Denise Stapley to audition for the 25th season of Survivor, set in the Philippines. Their stories are in “Swimming Life” on page 6. Also in Swimming Life, Patricia Sener and her Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers turn adversity into adventure as they recover from Superstorm Sandy, finding ways to help others in the process.
Helping others is a mantra in the marathon swimming world, and successful swimmers consider it a point of pride to extend a hand and pay it forward. Contributing writer Elaine K. Howley, an accomplished marathoner and Triple Crown swimmer herself, has always admired the pioneering women who preceded her. In “Splashback,” on page 48, she looks at the accomplishments of the legendary Florence Chadwick and how she inspired others.
Inspirational is often used to describe pro triathletes and USMS members Jarrod Shoemaker and Sara McLarty, both of whom are featured in this issue.
However you like your open water, enjoy it, protect it, and help others enjoy it. You don’t have to live near the coast or travel to an exotic locale, although it’s a great way to spend a vacation. There are many lakes and rivers in landlocked states that are plenty exciting to swim in. There’s something special about being in natural waters, and it’s even more special when you share the experience with the people in your life who matter.
Updated September 8th, 2014 at 04:43 PM by Editor
When I started Masters swimming, I was training for a triathlon. My nonremarkable age-group swimming career ended somewhere around age 12 or 13, and I didn’t really see myself as a swimmer anymore, since I had pursued other sports after my early days at the pool.
So back to the pool I went. I found that I didn’t need to spend a lot of time learning an efficient freestyle—30 years had not erased the basics; swimming felt good and natural. I did a few triathlons, became a semidecent cyclist, but never amounted to much on the run. However, one thing became very clear: Training to be competent in three sports, done in rapid succession at varying distances, is exhausting.
What about the person who takes on this challenge with little or no swimming background? Many triathletes start from scratch in all three disciplines, but most agree that swimming is the toughest of the three. Swimmers who can’t remember not knowing how to swim efficiently don’t understand how this feels unless, perhaps, they’ve taken up French or the violin as a midlife crisis hobby.
Why is swimming so difficult? My guess is because it’s one of the few sports in which your brain has to first accept that you’re in a hostile environment—one in which failure to get to the surface to breathe means death—then you need to learn the rest of the sport: stroke technique, lane etiquette, how to use all those groovy plastic toys.
Of course, most of us don’t think we are going to die while we’re swimming laps, but a part of our brains undoubtedly remains on alert as a survival technique. This nifty capacity to automate the mechanics so we can enjoy ourselves and focus on efficiency and power is a noticeable difference between swimmers who started early and swimmers who are new to the sport.
In this issue, Jim Harper, who trained for and recently competed in his first triathlon, takes a lighthearted look at some of the differences between swimmers and our multisport brethren. He talks with some USMS coaches who have found innovative ways to ensure that triathletes in their programs are getting what they need to improve the swim leg of the tri.
We’ve heard the jokes and stereotypes, watched the xtranormal.com videos of “Swimmer Guy and Triathlon Girl,” we’ve reviewed Jef Mallet’s excellent treatise, “Trizophrenia” in SWIMMER. As long as we can all laugh at ourselves, our differences shouldn’t preclude a shared enjoyment of the water and mutual respect for our different abilities and goals. Let’s continue to welcome triathletes to our ranks in USMS.
Updated July 1st, 2014 at 10:48 AM by Editor
There’s always a lot of talk about age in Masters swimming. We don’t look our age—and some would argue, don’t act it—we age well, we age up, we age group. And then there are the adages: “Age is just a number,” “The older we get, the faster we were,” and “We don’t have to get faster, just older.”
There’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the adult swimmer, something the nonswimmer can’t quite define. Most hit the pool deck in their swimsuits with confidence, no matter their shape, size, or age. Sort of like learning that it’s OK to send your food back in a restaurant—something many don’t feel comfortable doing until their 40s—we have a wee bit of entitlement as we stroll around at meets discussing our races with our teammates and competitors. After all, we have worked hard, in life and at practice, and we made all the necessary family arrangements back home. When we get to the meet, it is time to have fun.
And we’re good at it—just ask the 592 swimmers, aged 18 to 91, who participated in the YMCA Masters National Championship on April 15-18 in Ft. Lauderdale. First-timers at the meet were amazed—remarking that everyone just looked so happy: big smiles, lots of cheering and laughing. There were throngs of noisy swimmers at the turn end shouting encouragement to their teammates, getting their splits, counting their laps—no matter what age. A nonswimmer friend, who noticed the complete lack of attention paid to age in this regard, remarked that Masters swimmers must have the best-kept secret in athletics.
The secret is getting out.
In the January-February issue of SWIMMER, Jim Thornton wrote about staying happy, and how aging Masters swimmers, on average, appear to be happier than nonswimmers. In this May-June issue, lifelong swimmer and noted author Dr. Phillip Whitten explores research into the physical side of aging swimmers. Again, Masters swimmers appear to come out on top—living longer, not surprisingly, than sedentary people and, something that did surprise researchers, longer than walkers and runners. Although the research is fairly new, it has sparked curiosity in the research community dedicated to aging and will undoubtedly be further explored.
While we let the experts figure it out, we’ll continue to have fun; it’s how we roll.
Updated July 1st, 2014 at 10:55 AM by Editor
In Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, a subculture is defined as “an ethnic, regional, economic, or social group exhibiting characteristic patterns of behavior sufficient to distinguish it from others within an embracing culture or society.”
One can indeed argue that Masters Swimming is a subculture in our society. Most of us have nonswimming friends and family that embrace us in spite of our strange proclivity for rising before dawn, braving unsavory weather, jumping into a concrete box of water and swimming back and forth for hours. This can make family reunions and cookouts with our nonswimmers interesting. Sometimes they view us as eccentric and amusing, but not really all there mentally. And some, in a less amusing light, albeit a sometimes-justified one, see us as selfish in our endless pursuit of that black line.
Our fellow swimmers, however, offer us that no-need-to-say-anything sense of comfort that comes in the box with a subculture. The camaraderie is almost effortless, even for people stepping onto the pool deck for the first time. It always amazes me when I see a new swimmer approach with trepidation what many of us now consider our lifestyle, only to see them a month later joking and laughing with their lanemates as though they were lifelong friends. They bring their bikes to practice so they can ride together afterward, plan weekend trips with their families, and organize their free time around their new team of friends.
As humans are sometimes wont to do, I used to think that my teammates and I had this special connection exclusively, that our team was, well, extra special. And of course it is to me. But, from reading all your letters and emails, and re-reading back issues of SWIMMER, it is clear that this phenomenon is widespread in the USMS community. And it goes beyond friendship or your standard social fare. Many of us know someone who has cooked and delivered meals to an injured teammate they barely know, or seen an entire team close ranks in support of a swimming family hit with a devastating loss.
This subculture phenomenon is also prevalent in high-stress or high-demand professions such as medicine and emergency services. It would be interesting to know how many USMS members hail from professions like these, and who find solace in a different kind of subculture. One derived from a more pleasurable form of stress, where racing a teammate to the wall before dawn might not be the most important thing they have to do that day, but is every bit as rewarding.
Updated July 1st, 2014 at 10:56 AM by Editor