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by Libby Garland

December 31, 2008

The Red Tide training trip tradition

When the two swimmers left their shaded hammocks on the beach at Pie de la Cuesta, a village just north of Acapulco, Mexico, the mid-afternoon sun was intense. They decided to avoid the thirty-minute uphill trek to the house where they were staying with their teammates during Red Tide’s annual weeklong training trip. Instead, they hailed one of the Volkswagen Beetle taxis that ply the narrow highway from Pie de la Cuesta to Acapulco.  The driver, on hearing their destination—given in rudimentary Spanish—nodded. “Ah!” he said. “The group on that bus!” All the taxi drivers had noticed the twenty gringos packed into the against-all-odds-still-functioning, jazzily repainted school bus. They couldn’t miss it, given how it stopped all highway traffic four times a day while it maneuvered painfully in and out of the tiny driveway, on its way to and from the city pool. But the taxi driver was curious, not annoyed. “You’re a musical group?” he guessed, doubtless picturing all the gear the bus-riders always toted. No, the passengers explained. Un equipo de natación—a swim team. Of grownups. From New York City.  “Ah.”

It’s not every day that you see a load of Masters swimmers jammed into a battered vintage bus, bouncing along a Mexican cliff-top highway overlooking the bright green sea. For many Red Tiders, though, traveling somewhere beautiful and warm for a week of intense swimming, camaraderie, and the chance to explore new places has become a much-anticipated February ritual. For each of the last seven winters, current team president Kristin Gary has organized a Red Tide training trip—twice to the Dominican Republic, twice to Barbados, twice to Mexico and once to the Bahamas.  Every trip, timed to get swimmers in shape for their spring focus meets, entails two, two-hour practices each day in an outdoor long-course pool, plus an hour of dryland work.

Gary, a Masters world champion backstroker, explains that her original motivation was simply to have a reason to leave New York in February. “Frankly,” she says, “swimming in basement pools all winter like we do gets grim.” But she, along with her teammates and coaches, soon realized that the training trip was more than just an escape from slush and cold. “People wonder what makes a masters team successful, athletically and organizationally,” adds Gary. “I’d say the training trip has played an important role in our success. Not only does it make us stronger swimmers, at whatever level we are, but it also helps make us an especially cohesive group.”

Gary can rightfully be proud of Red Tide. The organization, founded in the 1980s as New York City’s first USMS team, is flourishing. Red Tide’s 200 members come from across the metropolitan area and range in age from 23 to 65. The team offers twelve practices a week, led by experienced coaches. Red Tide welcomes swimmers at all levels and encourages everyone to compete. It is also notable, however, for doing some very fast swimming. In 2009 alone, Red Tide swimmers broke four Masters world records and 13 USMS national records. In the same year, it had 102 USMS Top 10 individual finishes and 36 Top 10 relay finishes, and a number of individual and relay All-Americans.

“And we’re very social,” says head coach Eric Mitchell. “We celebrate when we swim well, but we also just like hanging out. That helps make us a strong team.” Red Tide has regular Friday night happy hours and post-workout breakfasts. It has spawned its own football team, which makes up in enthusiasm for what it lacks in land-based skills, and there has been talk of forming a Red Tide string quartet.

While all of this in- and out-of-pool activity clearly speaks to a team ethos of year-round commitment, good will and careful planning, the training trip, team members say, represents and fosters the culture that makes Red Tide click so well.

Like the other work of team building, organizing training trips did not prove to be simple. Gary recalls some early glitches. The first year, she opted for La Romana, in the Dominican Republic, making arrangements with the help of a Dominican swimmer friend. The team got the use of a pool that had hosted the Pan-American games, but it turned out that the facility had fallen on hard times. It could no longer afford electricity for its filters, for example, and Red Tide had to organize the purchase of chlorine ahead of the team’s arrival—“a tiny logistical challenge,” remembers Gary. Swimmers also drove themselves to and from practices in rented cars, which seemed practical until there were a few minor collisions, and some unplanned detours on ill-marked roads.

After that, Gary turned to a travel agency that specializes mainly in arranging training trips for college athletes. This made for some smoother logistics—the second trip to the Dominican Republic featured a more reliable pool, for example—but the agency had not entirely reckoned with the tastes of an adult group. “Our hotel was really touristy,” remembers Red Tider Carmen Menocal. “It had lots of ‘live entertainment,’ which meant people doing the Macarena outside for hours every night. Hard to sleep through that.”

“After those first trips, we figured out exactly what we needed in order to relax, enjoy ourselves and swim well,” Gary says. “Now I make sure we hire someone who knows the local roads to drive us to the pool—no more crashes. We make sure the pool functions. And we stay somewhere tranquil—no drunken tourists.”  In Acapulco, for example, the house the team rented was built into the cliffs above the ocean, quiet except for the surf. For the trip to the Bahamas, Gary called on the insider expertise of Bahamian Dake Gonzalez, who swims with Team New York Aquatics and has come on several Red Tide training trips. He helped find a quiet inn with an ocean view, and welcomed the team to an enormous post-practice feast at his father’s home nearby.

Food, naturally, is a priority, as any swimmer will understand. “It’s astonishing how much we eat on the training trip,” says team member Rowan Mestecky. Gary explains that she learned quickly how crucial it was to stay somewhere able to provide plenty of simple, good food on the premises, “so swimmers don’t have to go hunt and gather when they are famished after practice.”

Orchestrating the heart and soul of the trip—the swim training itself—also turned out to be complicated. Swimmers arrive with a range of expectations. Former college athletes know, for example, what it takes to get through a week of hard-core workouts, but, at the same time, they are no longer up for “20,000 meters a day of misery, meant to break you down,” as Gary described her college training trips. Some who never had a college training experience, meanwhile, like Sara Upton, look to the training trips as a new way to “challenge mental and physical limits.”

Coach Mitchell says he was slightly taken aback at the extent to which some Red Tiders, unlike his former college teammates, get to the training trip in less than peak shape, coming as they do from their regular adult lives. “The first day of my first Red Tide training trip was the most difficult physical experience of my life,” remembers Upton. “Those two workouts plus the dryland were a shock to my non-elite athlete’s system.” Mitchell was a bit flummoxed by this his first year. Swimmer Menocal says, “I still like to remind him of the despairing look on his face when he watched us attempt a monster set of 400 IM’s one afternoon after a brutal morning workout. I don’t think my arms ever made it out of the water on the fly.”

He decided in subsequent years to balance intensity and yardage with other kinds of work. “I push,” he says, “but I adjust. If at breakfast after the morning workout everyone is too exhausted to talk, I focus the afternoon workout on technique.” Swimmers at all levels say this non-sadistic, thoughtful approach helps them improve more than simply cranking out yardage would. “Eric does an excellent job mixing very difficult sets with fun and learning—I have come away every time with much to think about for each of my strokes and turns,” says Red Tider Jane Kelsey

Red Tiders also say that the communal, inclusive aspect of the trip, in and out of the pool, makes the experience both fun and inspiring. “The faster, more experienced swimmers get to see their slower teammates tackle those workouts,” says Gary. “I look at the other lanes and think, ‘They’re doing it, so can I.’” The self-described non-superstar swimmers, too, say they are heartened by the support they get from faster teammates, and by seeing that the workouts are tough for them as well. Red Tide also opens its trip to other teams in New York City and beyond; swimmers have come from across the country and even from abroad to join the trip. “Everyone was welcoming, especially the coach,” says one swimmer who joined the 2010 trip to Barbados.

As adults using precious vacation time, too, the swimmers want to do more than exhaust their bodies. “The travel aspect is important, too,” says Gary. “We want to experience the places we’re in. We spend time on the beach, surfing or just loafing. In Barbados, we found the island’s best fish fry. In Acapulco, we went to watch the amazing cliff divers—they put our own aquatic feats into perspective.”

“My coworkers think I’m nuts, using a week of vacation to spend five hours a day training,” says swimmer Spencer Neyland, “but the trip includes my favorite activities--swimming, eating, sleeping, and hanging out with friends, all against a tropical backdrop.”

Mestecky explains that the pleasure of being somewhere beautiful helps renew her love of swimming. “Swimming outside in the evening, with the daylight fading, is so lovely that it makes me enjoy swimming for itself—not just for the speed or training. I think about my stroke, I watch the moon. The pressure is off.”

Coach Mitchell is convinced that all the aspects of the trip—the intensive training, the supportive atmosphere, and the good time swimmers have outside the pool—contribute to Red Tide’s success. “We’re together doing things we love to do,” says Mitchell. “That’s important for coaches and for teams. And plenty of swimmers keep signing up for the trip. All that repeat business means we’re doing something right.”