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by Kelly O’Mara

February 14, 2020

Many swimmers on Walnut Creek Masters found their spouse at the club’s evening practice

It makes sense that we often meet our significant others in the places we spend the most time—work, school, or social gatherings. These are the people who like the things we like, care about what we care about. And so, of course, it’s not uncommon for Masters swimmers to find love with another Masters swimmers they meet at the pool.

But it’s more common for some clubs than others.

Walnut Creek Masters, near San Francisco, has helped bring together dozens of couples over the years. What is it about the water in Walnut Creek?

Kerry and Charlene

Walnut Creek Masters Head Coach Kerry O’Brien is more than just a swim coach turned accidental matchmaker. He also met his own wife while coaching on deck.

Back in the early ’80s, he had just started coaching Walnut Creek Masters, and a new girl, who lived nearby, showed up to the evening workout to check things out. Halfway through the practice, when Kerry went to check on her, she said she was struggling. During the next set, he jokingly left the lifeguard buoy by the end of her lane. That sense of humor, he says, apparently sealed the deal in her eyes. Or so she says now.

Charlene kept coming back to the evening workouts, even staying to chat and help Kerry cover the pool for closing. They went out to breakfast and then to the team’s 1982 New Year’s Eve party together, which was the turning point when they started officially dating. After spending all that time together, one thing just led to another. Let’s just say there were lots of their fellow swimmers at the wedding two years later.

They’ve been married 35 years now, and he still coaches and she still swims. The relationships they’ve made in the pool have lasted them a lifetime and they both appreciate what the team has meant for them. “There’d be no story without it,” Kerry says.

Of course, coaching your wife can be a little different than coaching your soon-to-be girlfriend. And it comes with a few parameters—like she never wants to know the workout in advance. “It was in our pre-nup,” he jokes.

Chris and Dean

When Chris Ottati first met Dean at swim practice, she kept trying to set him up with other friends of hers. Here was this cute, nice guy, but he was four years younger than her and, at the age of 26, that seems like a lot. “Then, one day, I thought, ‘This is silly,’” she says. Why not go out with him herself?

That idea turned out to be a good one. They went out and they ended up getting married at the gardens overlooking the pool, with plenty of their lanemates in attendance. They’ve now been married for 35 years.

There was something about those practices, though, back when Chris was in her 20s, that made them so perfect for finding friends and boyfriends. It’s always hard to meet people after college, but she wanted friends outside of work, and bars weren’t really her scene. “The swimming just made it so easy,” she says. Here were people who also wanted to work hard and have fun. And the evening workout group would go out to dinner once each week after practice. First swim, then socialize.

Plus, it helped that Kerry essentially hand-picked Dean to join the Masters club. While he was on deck, Kerry used to keep an eye on the people swimming laps on their own to see if there were any likely candidates to join Masters. One day, he saw Dean, who had just graduated college, swimming on his own and invited him to come on over. Chris, at the time, was the membership coordinator for the team and the treasurer, so she got to welcome the new guy. It’s not exactly matchmaking, but it’s pretty close.

Karen and Pat

Karen and Pat Duggan met while swimming on Feb. 8, 1993.

She had just had her wisdom teeth out and had been going stir crazy, so she went to the pool to swim a workout by herself. The guy in the lane next to her started chatting her up, asking if she wanted company. She wasn’t in a great mood, so she said she was doing 10 x 200s butterfly just to drive him away. Instead, Pat said, “OK, sure!”

A few weeks later, she saw him at the pool again, and they started talking. Both of them had swum in college but taken some time off. She was getting her teaching credential, and he was going through the police academy. She even convinced him to join the Masters club, so they got to spend more time swimming together. For their first date, he invited her to go on a picnic—which ended up lasting 18 hours. First, they swam the morning weekend Masters workout, then they went on the picnic up the nearby mountain, then they went on a bike ride and a run, then to the movies, and finally followed it up with dinner. And, in December 1994, Karen and Pat got engaged while snow camping.

For their wedding, Kerry drove them from the church to the reception in his 1957 Chevy. There were actually so many of their teammates in attendance that the rest of their family kept asking: Why is everyone at your wedding so fit?

Now the couple has four kids, all of whom also swim and play different sports. That’s made it hard to stick to a workout schedule themselves, but Pat retired a few years ago and has been swimming more, and Karen’s trying to get back into it. Their dream one day is to do a family mixed swim relay, taking the kids back to how it all started.

Cathy and Jon

It took a little bit of time for Jon Jacques to win Cathy over.

Back in the day, she says, the Walnut Creek night workout was full of young people looking to mingle. “It was singles city,” she jokes. “People were meeting left and right.”

And Cathy and Jon met too, one night on deck talking and chatting and delaying getting in the water for the workout. Jon asked her if she wanted to go out for margaritas—something the team would do regularly after practice. She said sure.

It took two months for Cathy to decide she wanted to date Jon.

The two of them would go on dates with other swimmers and everybody knew what everybody else was doing. Cathy even had to play wingman for another couple on the team who wanted to get to know each other better. Those two are married now too.

Something in the Water

The swimmers who went to Kerry’s evening practices grew up together. They went to each other’s engagement parties and baby showers. They have kids now, many of whom swim on the youth team.

Walnut Creek Masters still has more than 400 swimmers at five different practices each day, meeting and getting to know each other, making connections, and building relationships. But that’s not unique to Walnut Creek. Swimming is simply a venue to meet other like-minded people. Then you add in social elements, such as dinner or brunch or hanging out at meets and then parties. “Swimming is kind of the conduit to this family,” Kerry says.

Plus, he adds, when you’re swimming, you’re not necessarily looking for people who look like you or are the exact same as you. You’re just looking for people who swim your speed. In the water, you can get to know swimmers you’d never get to know otherwise.


  • Human Interest