Encouraging More Adults to Swim

SwimFest '10, One Participant's Perspective

by June C. Hussey

It’s nearly midnight when I arrive home Sunday night after a weekend at SwimFest ’10. I still have salt in my ears and sand in my toes from our open water session at La Jolla Shores. My lats are sore and my back is sunburned. After two full days of intense concentration in and out of the water, I’m tired, yet completely satisfied.

I’ve just spent the last two days with 150+ people, most of whom I’d never before met. About half were Masters swim coaches being mentored by some of the most experienced Masters coaches in the U.S. The other half were a cross section of USMS’s demographic: committed swimmers “swimming for life,” spanning three generations, males and females, all shapes, sizes and speeds.

SwimFest ’10 attendees came from west coast places like Walnut Creek and Seattle; desert places like Tucson and Glendale; mountainous places like Reno, Nev. and Asheville, N.C.; and east coast places like Yonkers, N.Y. and Atlanta, Ga. All traveled from points throughout the U.S. for one purpose: to learn how to become better swimmers and coaches. Mission accomplished, we all left SwimFest ‘10 with the added bonus that is virtually guaranteed at any Masters swimming event: new friendships forged through swimming, and a tee shirt to remember them by.

My SwimFest ’10 tee shirt will always remind me of one of the inspiring people I met there: Susan Bradley Cox. Susan travels the world competing on the USAT National Triathlon circuit in the 70-something age group. In spite of a stress fracture in her tibia, she participated full tilt in every part of SwimFest. Back home in Lexington, where a local triathlon has been named in her honor, this tireless athlete coaches a Masters team as well and is often just returning home from her coaching job when others half her age are already snoring to the late news.

USMS membership, 50,000 strong, is full of inspiring role models like Susan Bradley Cox. When you participate in events like SwimFest, you’re bound to meet them.

Day One

Saturday morning, bright and early, I make my way to the pool. Sponsor placards line the pool’s edge: Agon, Swim Outlet.com, Barracuda, Hammer Gel and more. These and other sponsor organizations help make an event like this possible, and I feel fortunate to be here.

In my welcome packet, I’m pleased to find both a front mounted snorkel and tempo trainer by Finis, two pieces of equipment I don’t own and have never even tried. Testing the latest, greatest pool gear will come later this day, and before it’s over, I’ll own a newfangled triangular kick board designed to help you kick in a perfect streamline, and a SwimP3 Player, both offered to SwimFest participants by Finis at half price.

But first, we are made to feel welcome by Mel Goldstein, director of Club and Coach Services for USMS, Rob Butcher, Executive Director, and Jeff Moxie, President. Mel introduces the day’s faculty: Ronald “Sickie” Marcikic, Laureen Welting, Kerry O’Brien, Gary Hall, Sr., Genadijus Solkolovas, Ph.D. (“Dr. G.”) and Frank Marcinkowski. The next day, open water specialists Mickey Murad and Matt Macedo will join us.

We divide into three groups for a morning of lectures on tempo training, fundamentals of fast swimming, and strength training for swimmers as demonstrated by Stacy Peterson, a sports performance specialist and top ranked Masters swimmer. Stacy breezes through a series of jumps, shrugs, squats, lunges, push ups, planks and shoulder stretches with superhuman strength and stamina. Coach Marcinkowski promises to provide us all a link to a similar 45-minute “beach towel workout” he and his team use, “which is also used by Special Forces,” he grins, adding, “It’s devastating. It’s excellent.” For once in my life, I’m grateful I don’t live near a beach.

Next, we suit up for rotating stations on starts and turns, tempo training, and gear sampled by Finis, all very enlightening. At 11 a.m. I break free from my group to undergo velocity testing by “Dr. G.,” a unique opportunity for which I have coughed up some extra dough. Dr. G. served as director of physiology and sport science for USA Swimming from 2000 to 2008, consulting with Olympic swimmers.

Far from his former clientele, I’m a typical Masters swimmer in many ways. I swim Masters for fitness, for fun, for camaraderie, and for the love of open water swimming. I’ll never be a top contender, but I’ll also never stop trying to improve.

After rigging me up to a belt connected by a thin string to some sensitive electronic equipment of his own design, Dr. G. spends five minutes video taping me underwater doing a series of freestyle and breaststroke maneuvers: streamlines, breakouts and fast swimming. He has performed the exact same tests on Team USA swimmers in preparation for the last three Olympic games. I’m nothing but a slug compared to his usual subjects. But I’m also too intrigued to let this high-tech opportunity pass me by. If Michael Phelps can glean technical advantages from this type of testing, then the upside potential for a hack like me is simply staggering.

At midday, a boxed lunch is served while Dr. G. explains his patented GST Swim Power Test to the entire group. I learn that his test is even more detailed than I imagined. It measures and analyzes changes in velocity, force, acceleration and power at each phase of one’s stroke. He illustrates his points using videotapes of Phelps and Natalie Coughlin. Coughlin, he says, has the most powerful streamline dolphin kick he’s ever tested, male or female. His data proves that even the best swimmers in the world have room for improvement. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the pure science of swimming. Dr. G. boils it all down to the simplest of terms for us, with “Fish has no neck; swim like fish.” It’s one of the aphorisms of the weekend that I’ll likely not forget.

We continue the afternoon with videotaped swimming sessions analyzed on the spot by one of SwimFest ‘10’s legendary coaches. I recognize him immediately from an article I’d read in SWIMMER. Characteristically decked out now in his wild, sun-bleached curls, mismatched tube socks and faded pink floral Vans, Coach “Sickie” Marcikic huddles next to each dripping swimmer, pointer in hand, showing them what they’re doing well and what they could be doing better. A tilt of the hand here. A twist of the body there. His 44 years of coaching experience – if not his well-worn shoes – command every swimmer’s utmost respect and admiration.

We finish the first day of SwimFest ’10 with drill work in all four strokes, each led by a different faculty coach, while mentor coaches look on. I learn a number of new and interesting drills that I will incorporate into future workouts, including one that Sickie has dubbed the “Roll Over Vomit Drill.” They’ll love that one back home.

Mentor coaches are gathered at both ends of the pool, three to a lane, to observe and comment to individual swimmers after each 25. Tighten your core. Rotate your hips more. Keep your head down. The feedback is almost overwhelming. The effort it takes to focus on each and every component of perfect swimming is exhausting. Nevertheless, we’re told, this is exactly what it takes to become a better swimmer. We end the day with a 25 fly, perfect stroke, overseen by Race Club director/coach and three-time Olympian, Gary Hall, Sr. No pressure at all. Gary has strong opinions about swimming and doesn’t hesitate to share them. I’m relieved to learn he condones the use of fins to facilitate perfect butterfly in practice. It’s just one of the many tidbits that are there for the gleaning from every presenter at SwimFest.

Day Two

Today we’re introduced to Matt Macedo and Mickey Murad, two Cal swim standouts who have, since matriculating, started an open water swim school in San Diego, First Wave Academy.

In between lectures about technique, strategy and race preparation in open water, we watch videos of the previous week’s USA Open Water 10K National Championship events in Long Beach, taped and shown to us by Marc Randell of The Athlete Village, yet another business that has popped up to serve the growing interest in open water swimming. In the videos, we see swimmers employing some of the same tactics we’ve just been taught, with exciting results. We watch as the men’s victor, Fran Crippen, increases his stroke rate from 82 to 110 strokes per minute at the finish, overtaking Chip Peterson, whose stroke rate remains constant. Crippen has been drafting while Chip has been leading the pack, and he has nothing left.

We’ve seen the pros do it. Now, it’s time for us to get wet.

Our coaches proceed to turn the water polo pool at UCSD into a simulated open water environment, which is surprisingly effective. Three buoys are anchored randomly. In our groups, we practice cornering buoys, finding bubbles, drafting, sighting, pack swimming and racing as the mentor coaches look on.

I learn more this day about open water swimming than 50 open water swims to date have taught me. There’s no substitute for experience, but there are definitely certain things experience doesn’t teach you, like how to harmlessly roll directly over the back of a competitor who is veering off course and trying to take you with him. After lunch, we pack up and take this new knowledge with us to the ocean, a few miles away.

La Jolla Shores is crowded and parking is difficult, but the group assembles by the main lifeguard station. We’re a sizeable crowd, drawing a few stares in our USMS garb. Lots of surfers and boogie boarders are out in spite of the relatively low, two-foot beach break. The water is 66 degrees. Half the group pulls on wetsuits as we learn how to spot the rip currents, which, we’re reminded, are an advantage to ride out during beach start races, and something to avoid on the finish. We are instructed how to run into the waves with ankles wide, transitioning to high knees then dolphin dives into the breaking surf, before finally swimming directly into the cresting waves. We practice each move, out and back and few times. Finally, we set a course and go, swimming several hundred yards straight off shore, turning 90 degrees to the north for another few hundred yards, cornering a buoy, and heading back to shore. We sight on the La Jolla Shores hotel, catch waves in the surf zone and try to avoid the rip, dolphin-diving into the shallows and running up the beach with whatever energy we have left, which in my case is none.

June C. Hussey is a life-long swimmer, wife, mother, coach, freelance writer and communications consultant based in Tucson, Arizona. She also serves as the open water chair for the Arizona LMSC.

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