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by Ali Hall

April 1, 2010

Getting fit through virtual swims

Step on to the deck at the D.W. Wilson Community Center in Tullahoma, just southeast of Nashville, and a challenge greets you: “Join the Swim across Tennessee!” Well, not literally out there on the pavement dodging cars and whatnot, but it’s a virtual swim and you track your yardage on your own page in a three-ring binder right there poolside. Or your mileage. After all, it’s 489 miles diagonally between Bristol and Memphis, or Memphis and Bristol depending on where you start. That’s a whole lot of fitness. And when you’re done, you can order a t-shirt.

If you’re at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, you can pitch in your yards to chip away at the group challenge: swim down the Mississippi River, about 2300 miles. I’m not so good at math, but that sounds like several million yards. Another group designated their event “Swim the Florida Keys.” Maybe you want to swim across Lake Champlain or Winnipesaukee. Then, there’s the Swim Across America, complete with its own website. Or, join the USMS-sponsored “Go The Distance (GTD),” a wildly popular event with over a thousand swimmers trying to reach milestone yardage measures or just trying to keep themselves in the pool as often as possible.

Virtual swims seem to be sweeping the U.S., and for good reason. A high percentage of all registered USMS members swim mostly for fitness. Local or national groups can designate a swim of any length, preferably a destination or a picturesque challenge, and swimmers of any interest level or ability can join in. Total your yards each day or month or whatever you like, set goals, and get fit!

Getting started is easy. You can look around at your local pool for a challenge, search the USMS Calendar of Events or scour the web for swim challenges.

Or, you can start one of your own like Maryland Masters Coach Nancy Brown did when she wanted to find a way to motivate her swimmers – affectionately known as the Crabs – to get a-crawlin’. At a team social, Nancy was talking with a couple of her swimmers, Joe Jackins and Chris Yearwood, about a virtual swim in the Chesapeake Bay. Joe, having sailed the Bay many times, and Chris, being a Bay pilot and merchant marine captain, immediately thought of how much fun it would be to have a virtual swim between the historic lighthouses. He drew up a chart from Turkey Point to Cape Henry, with twelve lighthouses in between. Then, he talked it over with Marti Betz, a workout-mate who is a gifted document generator, and they created a poster board for the pool deck. Maryland newsletter chair Lou Carones listed the Chesapeake Bay Lighthouse to Lighthouse Swim Challenge on the LMSC website and the USMS Calendar of Events, a 191.25 mile one way virtual swim … or a 382.5 mile round trip … and what was once just a good idea is now a wonderful reality.

Several participants – all first-time virtual swimmers – have voiced their enthusiasm. Captain Yearwood says he enjoys thinking about where he is in the Bay and that it’s helping him to stay motivated in the pool. Sandy Swoboda agrees. She likes the tangible part of putting yards to something you can see. “It will be fun to tell people ‘hey! I swam the length of the Chesapeake Bay!’” She also dug out a book about the lighthouses and their history. “I can use the swim as a chance to learn more about what’s in our own back yard.”

The many benefits of fitness swimming really come into focus during a virtual challenge. Maryland swimmer Molly Winkler enjoys her four days a week pool time as a break from the stresses of being a busy mother to three active boys. Before the Lighthouse Challenge, Molly didn’t really keep track of her yards. Now she’s amazed and delighted, feeling a sense of accomplishment, at how they are piling up. “I get to focus on my form and how I can improve as a swimmer.” She hopes to swim to all the lighthouses this year and is contemplating the round trip distance. And she has special motivation: her 7-year-old son signed up for the challenge too.

“Yeah, tell me about it!” says Tess Bloomquist, one of Molly’s workout mates. Tess points to another swimmer in her lane, 68 year old Joan Libby, still at it though the workout is over. “When she swims more, I swim more,” Tess sighs as she pushes off for another couple hundred yards.

When Joan finally stops swimming for the day, she says her goal is to complete about 9,000 yards a week over three or four sessions. The Chesapeake Bay holds a special place in Joan’s life, and that’s what she thinks about when she swims. “Having raced sailboats crewing for my husband over a span of forty years, I feel closely connected to the Bay, her tributaries and lighthouses. When I’m doing the yardage, I think about how the Chesapeake Bay has given me the happiest moments whether looking out at her water, sailing on her swells, or swimming in her waves.”

Ideas for getting fit through virtual swims:

  • Go to the USMS website and sign up for Go The Distance, keep track of your yards. Grab a map and draw a line to all the places you “visit” while piling up your yardage.
  • Try searching on the USMS Calendar of Events, in your area or wherever you like, for virtual swims. Sign up and swim.
  • Spend some Internet search time looking for interesting virtual swim challenges and cool SWAG.
  • Look around your local pool for virtual swim challenges. Or, if you travel, check out the bulletin boards for swims. If you go to Tennessee, definitely sign up and swim 489 miles, submit your form and get a t-shirt!
  • Talk with your swimming group and start your own virtual swim. You can keep it local or post on the USMS Calendar of Events for others to join in.