Adventures in Adult Swimming

When you think about swim meets, you probably think about pool decks filled with junior high school kids wearing team sweatshirts and parents hovering around them with stopwatches and towels.

You may not know that there’s another swim meet scene out there in the world; one where the pool decks are filled with thirty-something to eighty-something year-olds wearing team parkas over carbon fiber “tech suits” (you know, the superhero-looking ones you see on Olympians) which promise to hold in the “less elastic skin” of the older swimmer.

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These meets are sponsored by United States Masters’ Swimming, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting adult aquatics. USMS provides a database of clubs across the nation, insurance for both clubs and individuals, coaching support and resources, and a year-long series of sanctioned competitions in both pools and open water venues. Lots of athletes join Masters’ teams in order to have structured practices as part of their workout regimens. As anyone who has done any swimming will tell you, following a workout prescribed by a coach is much more interesting than coming up with one of your own. In addition, swimming with other people is infinitely more engaging than solo training. Because lanemates can push each other, commiserate with one another, and even have a little social interaction at 6am, camaraderie is another big draw for most participants.

While plenty of Masters’ swimmers will never attend a competition, meets and open water races become the backbone of some athletes’ yearly schedules. I imagine there are as many reasons to do adult swim races as there are adult swimmers; however, it’s fair to assume that those reasons do not include going to the Olympics, getting a sponsorship, or even getting a swimming scholarship. Some Masters’ swimmers have already done those things in their teens and twenties; others of us never did and clearly never will. Save for a handful of coaches and administrators, few meet competitors are involved with swimming professionally. All have considerable commitments in their lives, most of which are much more important than swim races. This takes a certain amount of edge off of the events, and makes for a much more friendly and social atmosphere than those childhood meets had.

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After a thirty-year hiatus from competitive swimming, I undertook a different kind of adventure this past week by participating in my first adult swim meet. I wasn’t at all nervous about the parts that take place between the walls – the strokes, the exertion, the endurance. But the accessory parts – diving off the block, turning at the wall, and finishing – caused a little bit of concern. It is possible to get disqualified for not doing those things correctly, and they’re complicated – especially if you’re thirty-plus years out from having learned them. I did some practice with my coaches and watched some YouTube videos prior to the meet and somehow managed to avoid getting the dreaded “DQ” stamped next to my name. Avoiding disqualification and drowning were my overarching goals for the event, so I handily succeeded on both fronts. I also beat all of my seed times (the times you submit when you register for a meet – these help the meet directors separate swimmers into heats), got a handful of ribbons (it helps that I like to swim butterfly, and the fly events are not all that popular with the 45-49 year old women’s set), and felt really good about having pushed myself both during the meet itself and in the months of training I had done to prepare for it.

And yet, the best part of the meet had nothing to do with my personal performance. The highlight of being there was the diversity of ages of the other swimmers. I have to admit, I felt pretty young. I was stunned by the amount of athletes over seventy years old in attendance. You’d think that by being in the 70-74 or 75-79 year-old age groups you’d win simply by showing up; but you’d be wrong. There were more than a few men and women competing in both groups.

Then there’s the eighty-something crowd. Both an eighty-one year-old woman and an eighty-five year-old woman did the 50 butterfly. The same two women also completed the 1000 freestyle (that’s forty laps in the pool). Multiple eighty-something women did four or five events, as did an eighty-two year-old man. Best of all, at one point the meet director announced over the loudspeaker that a world record had been broken in the women’s 80-84 year-old age group. Wow. It’s hard for me to watch these folks in the water without wondering if I’ll be able to swim forty laps in a race when I’m eighty-five. Or if I’ll even live to be eighty-five, for that matter. While watching these folks wander the pool deck and talk to each other, I saw confidence and comfort oozing from their pores. It’s as though their carriage alone said, “Yeah, I’ve done all of this, you young ones. I’m here because I can be here, and I’m celebrating that. You all can worry about your times and how you look in your swimsuits; I’m just going to enjoy the ride.” That’s inspiring.

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I’m at the age where I constantly evaluate how I am spending my time. I think about what I have focused on in the past, and whether or not I have chosen wisely. I weigh the merits of what I am doing now, and how they might benefit me and the world as a whole as I see them through – or not. Needless to say, if I’m spending a bunch of time training in the pool, that same busy brain is questioning the validity of that choice.

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I might be putting thoughts in the eighty-somethings’ minds – or, more accurately, taking thoughts away from them – when I say this, but for some reason I suspect they have moved past this chattery questioning phase. They don’t seem like they’re wondering why they are training for these meets or why they are there at all; they seem to be simply enjoying being there in the presence of others.

I wonder if I can learn that from them – or from swimming itself, eventually.

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