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Cupid’s Arrow Makes a Splash

Finding love underwater

Kristina Henry | February 13, 2014

Spending time in the pool together makes working out a more communal experience for many swimmers. Teammates connect by sharing the same joys and frustrations that many biological families experience. Some lucky individuals take this notion a step further by training and competing alongside a significant other. And for some of these couples, USMS was the ultimate matchmaker.

For the fortunate couples who met through Masters Swimming, what keeps their relationships strong and how did it first bud? Was their love a slow build, a high intensity sprint, or a combination of drills, long sets, and occasional competition? Five swimming couples who met through Masters share how swimming factors into their partnerships.

Rick and Jessica

The spring of 2001 brought Rick Osterberg and Jessica Stokes together. Sharing Lane 1 at the Cambridge Masters Swim Club at Harvard University, a workout group of New England Masters, the couple soon became friends.

“Jess was attractive,” says Rick, 40, who works as Director of Technology and Data Services at Harvard University and runs the New England Short Course Yards Championship meet each year.

But, the feeling was not mutual according to Jessica, 37, a high school English and history teacher and the NE-LMSC Communications Chair. “I wasn’t attracted to Rick at first. He was really annoying to swim with because he was competitive about kick sets and got out early. He asked me out about nine months after we met, and I said no. But we became good friends, and I realized we could talk for hours. He was smart and friendly. I felt like I could totally be myself with him. We started dating six months after I first said no and got married four years later.”    

The couple does not compete against each other, at least not intentionally, and they try to keep a sense of humor about competition. They seek instead to support one another; Jessica has convinced Rick to stay in for the whole practice when he’s hit a wall, even if that means he has to move to the back of the lane. 

For anyone who’s thinking about asking out that cute swimmer in the next lane, Rick offers this advice: “Be persistent; it worked for me. But don’t be creepy.” Jessica agrees. “Go for it! It’s wonderful, sharing a healthy hobby with your significant other. As I eventually learned, it’s worth the risks.” Seems their teammates have taken this advice; Rick and Jessica have attended four other CMSC weddings.

Mary and Kevin

Mary and Kevin Gibson offer perspectives on coupledom from both above and below deck. The couple met in Pensacola Beach in 1980 at a Masters practice. “It was my first day and he had just returned to Pensacola,” says Mary, 57, who’s now the head coach of the Talbot Masters Manta Rays in Easton, Md. Kevin, now 59, was a Coast Guard pilot who had recently moved back to Florida and made note of the team’s new coach that first day.

“Little did I know he was watching me underwater with his goggles. When practice was over, he was out of the locker room before me, for the first and last time!” Under the pretense of needing a professional opinion, “He had heard that I was a physical therapist, and he had just had X-rays done of his hip,” Kevin made his move. “He asked me to look at them, which I did. Unimpressed with a picture of his pelvis, I told him they looked good, and was on my way.”

But that brush-off wasn’t a setback for Kevin. “Two blocks from the pool at a stop sign, he beeped, asked me if I was hungry, and took me out for beer and pizza. The rest is history,” Mary says.

For this couple, swimming became a family affair, as all three of their children swim. Two also swam on their college teams. Today, their son Chris coaches young swimmers in the Los Angeles area and their other son, Patrick, joins practice during family visits. Daughter Carly swims with a Masters group in Northern Virginia and competes as a Talbot Masters member. While some friendly familial competition occurs, Mary and Kevin keep things in perspective.

“We rarely compete against each other directly,” says Kevin. “Mary doesn’t get into the water until about a week before Y Nationals and makes her USMS National cuts in most of her events. I, on the other hand, swim three days a week and struggle to make my cuts. So it’s an indirect competition that I lose each year,” he says.

When asked about offering and receiving critique during practice, Kevin responds, “You’re kidding right? Offer critique? I didn’t get to be a veteran husband of 32 years by offering critique. I do, however, receive critique. Frequently. And it’s always welcomed and deserved.”

Masters Swimming continues to be a shared hobby between Coach Mary, who remains unimpressed by her husband’s pelvis, and her star pupil, Kevin, now a retired commercial airline pilot.

“It's Masters Swimming and should be enjoyable, not to be taken too seriously,” says Kevin. “We find the social aspect of our team to be as important as the swimming.”

Mary, a 1972 Olympic Trials competitor, agrees, “Humor and understanding are key in any relationship, even competitive swimming.”

Jeff and Julie

Jeff and Julie Roddin met in March 2007 at the Albatross Open swim meet hosted by Jeff’s team, the Montgomery Ancient Mariners in Maryland. (Julie was swimming with Fairfax Masters at the time, but has since switched to the Ancient Mariners.) Jeff, 44, was in charge of entries for the meet, and Julie, 37, wanted to change her events. So she emailed him prior to the meet to see if he would make the switch for her. The couple ended up chatting over email for a few weeks before the meet and discovered that they both went to the same summer league pool as kids. The couple started dating a few months after the Albatross Open. Soon, swimming and competing together followed.

“We have been in the same heat for the 400 IM a few times,” Julie says. “But we have more fun competing with Jeff’s 400 IM versus my 400 free times when we swim those events at the same meets. We are pretty close in those events.”

The couple don’t limit their competitive sides to just the pool, either. “I can’t keep up in the pool,” Julie says, but open water is a level field. Racing in open water is a lot of fun, she says, “because without the flip turns, I can keep up and have finished ahead of him a few times, including once when I was pregnant with our first baby.” 

The competition can get fierce, Jeff says. “In one particular 1-mile race, we agreed ahead of time to do the swim together for fun. But as soon as the horn went off, Julie not only took off on me, but she squeezed me out of the turn at the first buoy!”

Julie says they prefer to let the coach do the critiquing. “We don’t really solicit advice from each other regarding swimming. We share our goals and talk about our training, but rarely do we look to each other for advice, just encouragement.”

Jeff agrees. “We both enjoy watching each other compete, and we generally speak to the positives afterwards. After all, Masters Swimming is for fun and fitness, and we try to keep it that way.

Out of the water, Julie is a stay-at-home mom to a 3-year-old and a 1-year old. In addition to swimming, she also enjoys running and is a member of Team LUNA Chix, an amateur triathlon team sponsored by LUNA Bar with the goal of getting other women participating in triathlons. Jeff is a mechanical design engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He swims on his own four or five mornings per week, which gives him time to spend evenings with his young family.

“It has been terrific,” says Jeff. “I feel like I have good balance with family, swimming, and work, and my free time is spent working around the house and serving various officer positions at the USMS local and national level, which keeps me connected to the sport even though I'm not swimming or competing as much as I used to a few years ago.”

For this busy couple, their relationship is about communication. “You have to communicate and not assume you know what the other person wants or is thinking,” says Julie. “And patience, especially when you add kids.”

Mollie and Jeff

Jeff Strahota and Mollie Grover met at a Maryland LMSC Swim Series meet in Annapolis, Md., in March 2005. At the time, Mollie, who’s now 33, was swimming with Big Cat Masters at Penn State University. “Mollie and a friend from Pennsylvania had come down for the meet and were by themselves at a huge table of swimmers at the post-meet social,” Jeff says. “They looked lonely, so I went over and we struck up a conversation. We talked again at the Zone meet a few months later, and really hit it off at Nationals. That was the start,” he says. The pair now both swim for Terrapin Masters and live in North Bethesda, Md.

Some couples might shy away from being directly competitive with one another, but not Jeff and Mollie; perhaps because their union was first forged at a meet, they embrace a romantic rivalry.

“The summer before we met, we had unknowingly raced next to each other in the 200 LCM backstroke. I took an early lead, and Mollie, swimming a smarter race, swam past me in the last 25 like I was a traffic cone,” says Jeff, who’s also 33 years old and works as a product manager for media measurement company Nielsen.

“Until the following year when we put two-and-two together, Mollie was 'that girl who beat me in the 200 back'. Now, we race at every practice, getting most competitive in either kick sets or IM sets, and will often swim similar events and throw down a challenge at meets.”

As for critique, both welcome it. “We consider each other our training partner,” says Jeff. “We view practice as a chance to learn about yourself in the water: what you can and can’t do; what works and what doesn’t; and making tweaks to get better. We try to help each other get that feedback.”

Mollie, who works as an analytical chemist, thrives on constant feedback. “Whether I’m getting it from Jeff or a coach, I want to know what my times are, how my stroke looks, and where in the swim did I do this or when they think I should try that,” she says.

“Since I typically go in front of her at practice, I get a good chance to see her swim when she’s wrapping up repeats and at her most fatigued,” Jeff says. “This is when it is most important that the little things in your technique are right!”

Jeff and Mollie’s busy life is mostly aquatic with a large part of their schedule related to swimming—getting to and from practice, attending team-related social events, coaching, and volunteering with their LMSC and at the National level. “USMS Nationals typically doubles as our vacation,” Mollie says.

To make it all work, the couple makes time to connect as often as possible. “Communication is very important to any relationship,” says Jeff. “We’ve been together 8-plus years, and married 2-plus years and are still getting used to living with each other. Meeting each other’s needs, especially in the communication department, is a challenge when both parties’ primary activity outside of work is at the pool and our faces are in the water.” He says they try to chat during kick sets and during daily, distraction-free chat times at home.

“Listening is important, too,” says Mollie. “It is one thing to hear words, and another thing to understand them.”

Jason and Jenny

Jason and Jenny Eaddy of Sudbury, Mass., met at the New England Masters Short Course Meters Championship in 2002. As Jason’s coach was talking to Jenny, Jason took the opportunity to ask her to zip up his suit before the 200 fly. This interaction transpired shortly before Jenny broke a Masters world record in the same event. 

“The full body suits had more advantages than speed,” says Jason. “I remember being blown away by this cute girl who went out and crushed the field in the 200 fly who had just arrived at the meet from coaching at a USS meet.”

Swimming for different teams early in their relationship provided competition on the team level but not individually, and the pair strive to leave competition out of their relationship. “We have a general rule that we don’t compete against each other, but we certainly exchange a little trash talk when the opportunity presents itself,” Jason says. “We’ve swum against each other on a few mixed relays over the years, but we don’t take it seriously enough to know who won.”

While they leave competition out of their relationship, critique is another story. “We definitely critique each other after each swim and even after practices,” says 37-year-old Jason, Forensics and Discovery Practice Manager and Expert Witness at Elysium Digital, a litigation consulting firm. “Jenny does a great job of calming me down before big races and giving me excellent advice on pacing and technique. I think her age group coaching background helps a lot because dealing with me before a race can be a lot like handling an unreasonable teenager.”

Jenny, 36, and Associate Director, Regulatory Affiairs at Genzyme, agrees. “I was a USS coach for years after graduating from college, so I think that Jason likes that I can provide a genuine critique on his stroke.” For his part, “Jason always offers feedback on my swims, which I appreciate most of the time.”

The pair also appreciate that their connection is based in a shared interest that provides opportunities to work together and understand each other better than some couples might. “Starting a relationship with a shared athletic interest means you’re able to really appreciate what makes your spouse tick,” Jason says. “It means that when you need to work out to clear your head, your spouse is likely the one to point that out to you and understands you when you do things that the rest of society finds a little odd, like hopping in a pool at 5:30 a.m. in the dead of winter or trying to squeeze a workout in after putting the kids to bed.”

For this couple swimming might yet become a family thing. “We have two beautiful boys who we hope will develop the same love of swimming that we share,” Jenny says.

Cupid’s Fins

As these five couples demonstrate, Masters Swimming does the heart good, literally and figuratively. Whether through long sets and challenging intervals or with the camaraderie—and dare we say—love connections that can result from spending hours together in and out of the water, Masters Swimming can provide a shared experience for couples of all stripes. With success stories like these, perhaps USMS should branch out into the matchmaking business.

Watch out Match.com, Cupid may be trading in his wings for fins.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Kristina Henry

Kristina Henry has written about life on Maryland's Eastern Shore and fishing in the Chesapeake Bay for The Washington Post. She has contributed first-person essays to The Washingtonian as well as articles for Maryland Life and is the author of four children's picture books. She swims with the TCY Manta Rays in Easton, Md.

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