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by Ron Farra

September 22, 2002

The stroke editor

Ann Svenson is chairman of Adirondack Masters Swimming, an organization devoted to fitness and health in adults through swimming. "I'm a piece of backyard furniture," she quipped. "You know, I'm the 'Adirondack chair.'"

Ann, an adult swim instructor at the YMCA of Saratoga, emphasizes fitness through swimming and health through proper rest and nutrition. "I specialize in teaching swimming to triathletes," she said, "although I really didn't get into sports and fitness until I married an athlete."

Her husband Gust had been a football player at Saratoga Springs High School. After college he took up running where again he excelled. "You know the old adage," offered Ann, "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em! So, I joined my husband in running."

That was in 1972, when they were stationed with the Navy in Newport, R.I. Ann began her athletic career running laps on the track at the YMCA, where women were allowed only three hours, two days a week. Soon she felt comfortable enough to enter and complete the New York City Marathon in 1978. "It was my first and only marathon," Ann noted. "Right after I finished I announced that I was then a retired marathoner."

When the Svevsons were sidelined by injuries, they took up cycling. Then they saw a broadcast of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship on TV, and Gust decided that if he could learn to swim, he would train for that. "I decided, if he was going to learn to swim, then I would, too," Ann recalled. "We taught ourselves to swim at the YMCA when we returned to Saratoga in 1981."

A friend invited Ann and Gust to participate in a triathlon that he was organizing in Lake Placid. "That's when I found out that swimming was my strongest sport," Ann said. She was the fifth swimmer overall and the first woman, but quickly was passed on the bike and in the run.

In her first swim meet, Ann swam only the freestyle events—all of them. She finished fourth (out of five) in the 50-meter race, and second (out of two) in the 500-meter race. The next summer, in her first Empire State Games competition in 1983, she won a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle.

Ann became hooked on the aquatic sport and took every opportunity available to learn as much as she could about the technical factors involved in swimming. A big break came for her when her husband was transferred to Washington, D.C., in 1984, and she got a swim coach. Ann joined the DC Masters Swim Team. She found out that her coach, John Flanagan, was no ordinary swim coach. Rather, he was one of the "best training coaches in the country," she said. "He taught me how to swim fast and how to race." The team she joined had more national record holders than any other swim club.

Several years later, Flanagan introduced Ann to Terry Laughlin, who taught her about swimming technique. Laughlin also encouraged Ann to coach and taught her how to teach adults using his Total Immersion program. She coached a workout group at the YMCA in Alexandria, Va., from 1984 to 1993, and until last winter had been coaching the Masters workout at Southern Saratoga YMCA in Clifton Park.

"My interest in swim stroke technique was selfish, so I could improve my stroke, and in the process discovered I had a knack for teaching. I also found that the best way to learn was to teach. I became engrossed in swim technique and took every clinic I could find to learn more about it," she added.

Under Coach Flanagan's guidance, Ann became one of the top distance swimmers in her age group in the country. In 1991, she broke the world record in the 1500 meters by over 45 seconds, but because of a fluke in the pool measurement, it didn't qualify as a world record. It was accepted as a national record, and it wasn't broken until November 1994.

Ann has achieved success in the shorter distances as well. Twice she has earned All-American status in butterfly events: In 1997, she swam the fastest time in the country in her age group in the 50-meter butterfly; and in 2000, she did it again in the 100-meter butterfly.

Since taking up swimming, Ann has been an All-American 12 times. Mostly for long distance events, either open water or postal (you swim in your own pool and mail in your results) national championship events. Last year she earned All-American status for her victory in the three-mile Open Water Championships in Mashpee, Mass.

In 2001, she repeated her quest for top 10 victories by winning the 5K Open Water National Championships in Hollywood, Fla., and the One-Mile National Championship on Long Island, once again earning the US Masters swimming Long Distance All-American status.

Ann won three gold medals last year at the US Masters Swimming National Championships in Baltimore and three more this year at the YMCA Masters National Championships in Sarasota, Fla. She now returns to Virginia each winter to swim with Coach Flanagan and in the summer she trains at Colonie Town Park with the "youngsters" in the Adirondack Bluefins Swim Team under Jeff Maxwell.

Ann has earned a reputation as a highly respected swim instructor. "Ann is a phenomenal person as well as teacher," said Ilene Leverence, aquatics director at the YMCA of Saratoga. "She's extremely knowledgeable about the latest swimming techniques and teaching methods. Students constantly seek her classes and are very complimentary about her teaching."

"I am a stroke editor," said Ann. "I change how people approach swimming. Many triathletes think swimming is an endurance sport, but first and foremost it's a technique sport. I teach people who sink in the water how to stay horizontal; how to use their natural buoyancy to stay balanced in water, so they can use their endurance to go fast instead of fighting the water." As a former secretary and editor, she said she edited plenty of paperwork and helped writers to make changes. Now she helps swimmers to change from their old habits to a new set of swimming skills.

"Ms. Svenson's lessons helped me a lot," said Carol Still, a member of the Saratoga YMCA Stingrays Swim Team and former student of Ann's stroke improvement class. "It greatly improved my stroke and caused far less stress on my shoulders. I learned better technique and it helped me go faster."

Hugh Dunseath, who helped coach swimming at Shaker High School, has known Ann since she first started training to do triathlons and encouraged her to enter her first meet. "She's an excellent swimmer, a good friend and a fine teacher." He argued with Ann about teaching the new technique to old-timers. "You can't make a feather out of a rock," he said. In typical Ann style, she retorted; "I can, and I will." And she has.

Ron Farra ( lives in Saratoga Springs and enjoys hiking, biking, kayaking, snowshoeing and skiing. He is co-author of Winter Trails New York: The Best Cross-Country Ski & Snowshoe Trails (Globe Pequot).

Copyright 2000 Adirondack Sports & Fitness, all rights reserved.