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U.S. Masters Swimming Salutes Newbies

Masters. What does this term mean? In the PGA the Masters is the most prestigious golf tournament, held for the best players in the world. The winner of this infamous tournament is awarded a green jacket, coveted by all. The winner wears this green jacket with pride as he thanks his family, trainers and sponsors in a once-in-a-lifetime press conference. Grown men shed tears over this jacket. This green jacket has come to represent The Masters; however, this is not the Masters to which I am referring. The Masters to which I am referring includes grown men and women, of every age, shape, size and athletic ability wearing swimsuits, enjoying one another's company, laughing, splashing and, oh yeah, swimming. These Masters enjoy a beer with their teammates, they place friendly bets about breaking records, and these Masters are not afraid to try a new event just for the heck of it. These Masters, 35,000 members strong in 2009, are driven by the sheer joy of exercise, fitness, the water, the fun they have with their teammates, competition or just learning a skill that they've never tried before.

The green jacket may only be for the elite, but Masters swimming was designed for all. Often U.S. Masters Swimming welcomes "newbies." What is a newbie? A newbie is an adult man or woman who has never swum, never dived or never competed. U.S. Masters Swimming prides itself on its newbies and offers a virtual high-five to those brave enough to slip into a swimsuit for the first time in, well let's just say a long time, brave enough to venture outside of their comfort zones and brave enough to go where very few adult men and women have gone: a swim meet. Mary Grider, 51, a self-declared newbie, recently entered and successfully swam in her first meet. In her own words, Mary's experience is described below.

I've been to the mountaintop and I return with news for the, er... emerging adult Masters swimmer who has yet to compete in their first swim meet, and who might be reluctant to do so because, oh, I dunno, because you don't want to be seen coming in dead last and coughing up water: It's not that bad. I went to my first swim meet yesterday, a month following a no-show at what was supposed to have been my first meet, and I'm here to tell you I've seen the light. My concerns that rooted me in fear a month ago after I read the heat sheet the day before the event were so far off base, it's a bit embarrassing when I think back on it. When it comes to the world of Masters swim meets, I learned that the biggest rounds of applause were reserved for those who struggled as they painstakingly swam up and down their lanes, and for those with stories of triumph to tell, or for those who were currently undergoing therapy for devastating illnesses that would cause most people to stay home. Masters swim programs encompass folks of all shapes and abilities, where everybody - from world record holders - to AARP-aged newbies like me - has a place. One of the nicest things I witnessed was when a gentleman approached an elderly lady who recently overcame her fear of the water and learned how to swim, telling her what a wonderful job she did. That's the kind of crowd you'll be dealing with.

Let me tell you a little bit about some personal experiences I had from this first meet. First, I signed up for easy stuff - 50 free, 50 back, 100 free and 100 back. In addition, our coach, perhaps fearing I'd have another "I'm not worthy!" meltdown and stay home, placed me in two relays. We had to wait for a bit before getting the go-ahead to begin our warm-ups and, luckily, my teammates and I had our own lane. Warm-ups didn't go so well. As much as our coach tried to assure me that both the "T" at the bottom of the pool and the flags strung above it were identical in their placement to our pool back home, I couldn't judge my flip turns well at all. During warm-ups I must have flubbed over 50 percent of my turns. Oh, but I was spot-on with one of my flips. Oh, yessiree. I was practicing my backstroke, rolled to my belly, flipped, nailed it! And the moment I pushed off the wall (blinded, of course, because, well, you're on your back... ) I crashed smack dab into my coach, who was swimming behind me. She was unbelievably gracious about it. Thank you, Nadine! And there were no concussions. 

As luck would have it, one of my events was the very first one of the afternoon - the women's 200 yard medley relay, and I swam backstroke, so I was the first to get into the water. Great, I thought. This is the first event so everybody here is going to be watching, and I'm not exactly a gifted swimmer. The horn went off and I tore off the block like an alligator was swimming after me. I came flying into the first wall and using the flags, rolled to my belly, flipped, got it!! And I kept frantically repeating to myself things like: Keep those arms moving, Come on....just one more length!... faster!!.... My hand hit the wall (not my head!, Ooo, another triumph) and my teammate then immediately dove off the block. Quickly somebody said, "Mary! Get out of the water!" Oh, yeah.. oops, sorry. One feature of this pool that I'm delighted I don't have to deal with on a daily basis is that you couldn't touch the bottom and there was no ledge for you to place the ball of your foot to get some lift-off as you hoisted yourself out of the water. I'd practiced lifting myself out during warm-ups and managed to get a knee up on the deck, albeit ungracefully, bruising my shin in the process. Well, I hoisted myself up and just hung there for a moment before mustering the strength to finish the task. (Ok, fine, somebody rushed over to ask if they could help me and the embarrassment must have been the extra push I needed.) Where did the strength in my arms go? I felt like I'd just swum the English Channel! And my heart rate...Let's not even go there. Oh dear, this was only the first event, and it was only 50 yards. I'm sunk.

Well, I wasn't sunk. That may have been my first event, but that was the only event that I allowed myself to think those thoughts. 

By the time I stepped up onto the block for my second event, my nervousness earlier in the day was replaced with a sense of excitement that comes with knowing that I was about ready to do my best in the next race. By that time, you see, I'd been watching events closely for almost an hour and was now, finally, becoming aware of what my coach had been trying to get me to understand - that in Masters swimming, you don't have to be perfect. Imagine my surprise, for example, when during one of the men's races a gentleman did a really nice flip turn, but was so far away from the wall his feet didn't make contact. His buddies were sitting near me when he walked over after the race and, in very ho-hum fashion, shrugged off the miss with a "I'll do better next time" attitude. He wasn't putting on an act of indifference, it's just the culture of the event; and with that, the veil was lifted and my eyes were opened. I could have hugged him.

So, to those of you reading this who've said that you would never enter any athletic event where you'd come in last, or swim in a Masters meet because you weren't talented enough, you have nothing to fear. By swimming in a Masters event you'll experience the camaraderie of being on a team, yet when you get right down to it, the focus is on your personal performance, not with how well you fared against the others in your race. You'll cheer on your teammates, as they will for you. And then, of course, I highly recommend you go out as a team afterwards and eat. It's really a perfect ending to a day you won't soon forget.

U.S. Masters Swimming salutes Mary on her accomplishment, her courage and her willingness to serve as an inspiration to all newbies across the country. Good luck, Mary, in your future swims.

 

 

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