"Keep coming; you're making progress"
In September 2009, at age 58, I decided to get fit. I showed up at the Saluki Masters Swim Club on the campus where I work wearing a JC Penney’s drag producing suit and 20 extra pounds of cellulite. Even so, coach Clay Kolar was welcoming. He asked a few questions about my swimming experience, which was limited, and explained interval training. He paired me with another woman. “This is Lucy,” he said, “she’s here because she wants to get in shape. You’ll be good training partners.”
Lucy and I swam the 25-yard short course on one-minute intervals. We were totally out of breath. Lucy kept saying the coach wanted to kill us. And I believed her. But in spite of this I came back the next day. Lucy stopped showing up after a few weeks.
Coach Clay talked about the importance of regular attendance at practice. He said that for an older person to improve their swimming, resistance training was imperative. “Oh no,” I thought, “I’ll have to do weights too.”
My skill level was quickly assessed. I swam. I was timed. “You’re a weak swimmer,” Coach Clay declared, yet in spite of this I came back the following day. I observed the other swimmers perform incredible feats with seeming ease. Clearly, I thought, they must be Olympic medalists.
I showed up again the next day. “Good morning, Joyce,” coach Clay exclaimed, surprised that I hadn’t given up. The assessment continued. I was asked to demonstrate my breaststroke. “That’s incorrect,” coach Clay said. But there I was the next day. “Good morning, Joyce!” he sang.
I kept coming to practice, day after day, and every time coach Clay was surprised. I kept swimming and getting out of breath.
During the first few weeks, I was in a kind of shock. I took the weekends off and stayed in bed, remaining as motionless as possible. I needed to rest as much as I could in order to survive the next practice.
My workouts were totally adaptive. Each day after warm up coach Clay looked at me and said, “Take off your red fins, and put on your blue ones.” (This is an inside joke only he will get). The red fins were huge propeller fins, which I thought made me swim smoothly and really propelled me along. Never mind that no one else had giant propeller fins.
Day after day I appeared, and coach Clay would cry out, “Good morning, Joyce. Take off your red fins, put on your blue ones.” My intervals were three times as long as the other swimmers. I often had to rest while the rest of the group completed the sets.
Soon I purchased a new competitive suit. It would be the first of many. When my new fins arrived Coach Clay wrote my name on them. “Write ‘M.P’ Joyce,” I said, “for Michael Phelps.”
From the beginning the other swimmers were very supportive. “Keep coming,” they encouraged, “You’re making progress.” Coach Clay was amazing. He could see I was persistent and willing to work hard. He gave me so much positive encouragement. He constantly told me how great I was doing.
Over the holidays, when there wasn’t a scheduled practice, I’d go to the pool and work on my 25s on the :40, and turns off the wall for hours, alone. After the holidays coach Clay said, “You’re looking good!”
One day, after about four months, he told me I was losing weight and becoming toned. I no longer brought my red fins to practice.
A few months ago, I reminded coach Clay that it was my six-month Master’s anniversary. This might have been a mistake on my part because from then on I was not going to be coddled. I would be expected to look at the time clock to figure out my correct intervals, remember to descend when I was supposed to, and even – usually with fins – to keep up with my group.
It’s been about nine months now since the day of my first Masters swim. Next month I’ll turn 59. They say I’m getting faster and becoming a better swimmer. I’m feeling pretty fit. And, I’ve amassed a truly impressive collection of swimwear, which continues to grow.
I can’t do a lot of things, like a decent breaststroke, flip turns, or dive off the block. And I’m definitely the slowest swimmer in the club. But I show up and work hard. I’ve had perfect attendance for over four months in a row. And I memorized the five P’s coach Clay wrote on the board: Patience, Practice, Persistence, Perseverance and Pleasure.
For me, Masters swimming continues to be both challenging and rewarding. I’m totally grateful to my supportive coach and fellow swimmers.
Swimmer Joyce Deutsch contributed this essay to let us know how important Masters swimming has become to her, largely through the efforts of her coach, which underscores the special relationships many of our members have with their coaches.