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by Ashley Gangloff

May 14, 2009

Of roughly 50,000 U.S. Masters Swimming members, only about 25 percent choose to compete in a U.S. Masters Swimming sanctioned competition. What does this mean? "Newbies" make up the majority of the USMS population. Newbies sometimes view competition as scary, intimidating or just "not something I'm into," but this doesn't mean that competition is out of the question.

I am a self-declared fitness swimmer. I swim one to two times per week. If I actually resist hitting the snooze button at 5 a.m., I will swim with my local Masters program. If my fingertip is drawn to the snooze button with magnetic force (as it usually is), I swim at 8 p.m. after the age-group team has finished its program. I swim when I want, as far as I want and as I want. Fins, kickboards, freestyle, doggie-paddle or whatever other method strikes my fancy. I am a fitness swimmer, but I attended the U.S. Masters Swimming Short Course National Championship in Clovis, Calif., last week. Did I compete? Heck yeah, I competed ... and I loved every minute of it. This is what I learned competing in my first national championship:

You do not need to meet a time standard in order to enter the event; thank goodness, because the national championship was the first time I had even swam the 100 freestyle. I had no seed time and no idea how to even swim the event. I estimated a seed time based on what I thought I could swim. I stood on the block telling myself, "Down and back. Down and back. You can do this." And, I did.

You do not need a fancy-shmancy, high-tech suit. Yes, there were a lot of "racing" suits, but there were plenty of frilly, flowery and brightly colored practice suits that painted the pool deck. Did the woman in a five-year old bright pink U-back bathing suit have just as much fun as those competitors wearing TYR, blueseventy or Speedo high-tech suits? Absolutely.

There is no need to feel intimidated. No one knows your history. You may swim a best time, you may be swimming for the first time or you may add seconds, or even minutes, to your estimated seed time. No one cares and everyone is quick to congratulate you on your participation.

You can find a teammate in anyone at the meet. When I was in the locker room gearing up for day one (I was entered in the 200 freestyle), I ran into a sweet woman who immediately struck up a conversation with me. She asked what I was swimming. I said, "Well, I am registered for the 200 freestyle, but honestly I am a little scared and I'm not sure if I want to swim it." She proceeded to say, "Well, there is no reason to be afraid. I am swimming the 400 IM and I am 86 years old." "Fine. I'll swim it," I thought to myself. And after my race my newfound friend found me to ask how my event went. She cared. As did other new friends who didn't know me before. They didn't know about my swimming history, or exactly how nervous I was, but they supported me, cheered for me and gave me congratulatory hugs and high-fives after each of my races. Even though I had traveled by myself, I was surrounded by friends.

Don't be afraid to team up. Find other swimmers from your team and ask to be on a relay. At first, I didn't want the pressure of participating on a relay during which three other people would be counting on my success for an overall victory, but once I was at the meet and saw 70-year-olds teaming up with 20-year-olds and swimmers of all abilities and levels of experience joining forces to compete as a relay, I was hooked. It was exciting and created an atmosphere of inclusiveness. The camaraderie, the fun and the excitement of a relay cannot be replaced and I recommend it to all. And, I have learned that swimming on a relay actually calmed my nerves. I almost forgot what was going on around me. I could just hear my teammates behind me yelling, "You can do it!"

Be proud. Yesterday, as I walked to my gate at the airport preparing for my long trip home, I saw numerous familiar faces. I saw Masters swimmers wearing the meet T-shirt and other U.S. Masters Swimming logo gear. I saw people introducing themselves and recalling the meet. I saw people coming together based on their commonality and shared passion for the sport. Some talked about their successes, others crinkled their noses to share about their defeats and some even wore their earned medals around their neck for the trip home. Each person I saw, and talked to, was proud to be a part of the organization and the event that had concluded hours earlier. Even newbies must stand tall with their chins up and declare to the world, "I am proud to be a swimmer."

My first travel meet was a huge success. Did I swim well? Yes. Did I make new friends? Yes. Was I nervous? Yes. Will I be nervous for my next meet? Probably, but my experience at the U.S. Masters Swimming Short Course National Championship helped me to realize that a few nerves are okay and that it is the environment, the people and the thrill of the race that matters. Times on the scoreboard and the final results are nothing compared to the feeling of overcoming fears, making new friends and realizing a newfound passion.

So, newbies far and wide, come in a little closer. I have a secret I'd like to share. I am a fitness swimmer, and will always consider myself a fitness swimmer; however, I am already counting down the days to next year's Short Course National Championship, which will be held in Atlanta. I will be there. I will enter new events and challenge myself; I have no doubt that I will walk away from that meet as energized, excited and motivated to keep me going back to the pool as I am today. Shhhhh.... Don't tell the other fitness swimmers, but "I love to race!"