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Life in the Slow Lane

From "out of her league" to a "swim meet junkie"

Martha Katzeff | May 1, 2006

I love to compete.  I swam in my first competition at the tender young age of 50. Until then, I had been a runner for 22 years.  Knee surgery was the end of my daily running regimen and the start of crosstraining.  I had always loved to swim in my younger days, but as an adult with work and family responsibilities it was far easier to put on running shoes and go out the door for an hour.

I rekindled my interest in swimming after the knee surgery and during my daughter’s swim team days.  I took several private lessons from her coach and began swimming in earnest after a 30-year hiatus.  Soon after, the manager of a pool company told me about Masters Swimming (explaining to me what it was first) and I found a team to join.  I was convinced that my two or three times-a-week, 45-minute lap swimming put me in the “good swimmer” category.  What an eye-opener that was!  I had absolutely no idea that many Masters swimmers started out as competitive high school and college swimmers.   

At the coach’s suggestion, I attended a stroke clinic before I went to an actual practice.  Right then and there, I suspected that I might be out of my league, but persevered.  When I did attend my first workout, I didn’t know what to expect.  The coach suggested that I start in Lane 1 at the end of the lane.  Having no idea what he was talking about, I just got in the water where he was pointing.  In the lane already were five women who had clearly been swimming together for a long time and, to me, looked extremely intimidating.  The coach wrote the workout on the board and I looked at all those numbers, turned to one of the women in the lane and said, “What’s that??”  After collectively rolling their eyes, one of them explained the sequence to me.  Still completely clueless, I got behind the last woman, started to swim and tried my best to stay out of everyone’s way.  It was touch and go for me for about 2 months.  I sorely tried the patience of both the coach and the other women in the lane (yes, we were all women most of the time), but finally, got it.

With the help of weekly stroke clinics, which I attended religiously, and patient tutoring from my lane mates (who warmed up to me after they realized that I was there to stay and eager to swim), I became a die-hard Masters swimmer.

Along the way, I struck up a friendship with another new-to-swimming (she had just learned how to swim a year earlier!) die-hard, Masters woman.  Together, we decided that we were going to compete even though we’d only been swimming a short time. 

We signed up for a local meet and off we went.  My husband was gracious enough to give up his Sunday morning racquetball game to drive us there and cheer.  When we got there and saw all the swimmers, we were so overcome with anxiety that we could hardly breathe, let alone swim. We stood mesmerized, watching the first few events, and then it dawned on us -- that -- wait a minute -- a lot of those swimmers are not so fast . . . and not so young.

We ended up becoming meet junkies and competing together whenever we could.  In the summer we plot out all the open water swims we’re going to do (here in the Northeast, open water swim season is very short) and then tell our husbands that we’re busy every single summer Sunday morning and hope that they will understand.

Four years and many competitions later, I’m still a lane 1 swimmer, but now I’m the engine instead of the caboose.  One of the best things about Masters swimming is the inclusiveness of all ages and abilities.  Our lane 1 became a close-knit group of women who from time to time met outside the pool for a “lane 1 dinner.”

Last year, our team lost its pool when the building that housed it was sold.  It was a devastating loss for all of us because there was no one pool available that could absorb our more than 100 swimmers. The team fell apart, although a large part of the team did merge with another local team.  Sadly, our lane 1 group went its separate ways (although we still meet for dinner occasionally).

I joined a team locally known for its extreme competitiveness and landed in their midst just at the start of their gearing-up-for-Nationals training.  It was quite a bit of culture shock for me to go, in the space of a week, from a mostly laid back group of swimmers to a flock of Type A personalities launching themselves into training hyper-drive.  Still reeling from the loss of my other team, I threw myself into the fray and signed up for Nationals. 

To the credit of the coaches of my new team, I was always given lots of encouragement and training for the competition, just as if I were one of the faster swimmers on the team, and, indeed, was the only representative from my lane on our Nationals team.

Upon reflection, I realized it took a lot of chutzpah for a lane 1 swimmer, and the newest member of the team, to even contemplate competing on that level.  Nevertheless, I went to Nationals and even managed not to finish absolutely dead last in one of my events.  The atmosphere in Florida was exhilarating.  No one there ever questioned my right to swim with the “big guns” and the cheers were just as loud for the slower swimmers as for the record holders.  (In some cases, louder!)  I went home rejuvenated and ready to tackle whatever swim challenges the coaches threw at me.  My coach asked me what my goals are for the coming season and I gave him quite an ambitious list and hope to meet as many as I can.

In the meantime I will continue to swim and cross-train with an eye toward the 2006 Nationals.  The subject of Nationals came up in the locker room recently.  One of the women mentioned several teams who had brought only their “best” swimmers to Nationals this past spring.  This caused quite a stir among the rest of us. The general consensus was that bringing only the best swimmers goes against almost everything Masters swimming embodies.  It flies in the face of the USMS rule that allows any swimmer to enter three events without meeting qualifying times, which levels the playing field.  I certainly hope those teams reconsider their strategy and include their enthusiastic, not-quite-best yet swimmers the next time they go to a Nationals meet.

For me, competition keeps me motivated and focused.  In fact, I look forward to entering Nationals at 90 so that I can enter six events without a qualifying time!

This month's article was submitted by Masters swimmer Martha Katzeff of the Bronx, New York. Katzeff participated in her first swimming competition three years ago at age 50.

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