Article image

by Bob Jennings

November 30, 2014

Swimmers are a different breed, no matter where home lies

I always look forward to meeting new people, whether it’s through travel, working out, or practicing with different Masters swim clubs. Recently my wife and I and our two oldest sons planned to travel halfway around the world to visit our youngest son, Kevin, who had been teaching English to Korean children in Suwon, South Korea, for the past year. As a compulsive swimmer, I had no idea what to expect, but Kevin had guaranteed me a place to swim.

I knew swimming in South Korea was going to be a challenge since I don’t speak the language, and I was very nervous about communicating and fitting in. But after participating in last year’s Pan Am Games in Florida and hearing stories from teammates who had competed in the World Games in Italy, I was up for the challenge.

To my surprise, only four or five blocks from our hotel was the Yeongton Social Welfare Center, a multi-building fitness center with a five-lane, 25-meter indoor pool. Arriving at 6 a.m., I had no clue where to go, but my desire to swim was much stronger than my embarrassment. I started asking anyone I saw, “Where is the swimming pool?” When that didn’t work, I started moving my arms imitating freestyle. Finally a gentleman pointed me in the right direction and walked me into the correct building. He even convinced the lady at the front desk to let me in for the small fee of 3,000 Won, about $3.

Next, my new friend led me towards the locker room, but first we had to leave our shoes in a designated area before entering. Wanting to show my appreciation for his help, I gave the man the first of several USMS caps I had brought to trade. He accepted it with a smile.

The locker room was huge. It had all the normal amenities as well as a hot tub, cold tub, sauna, and a sit-down shower area with stools. The pool was similar to many others I’ve swum in. The only differences were that everyone was required to wear a cap (I was glad I brought the USMS caps!) and there was a small training pool off to the side where people worked on their strokes. Swimmers participating in a Masters program occupied three lanes, leaving two lanes open for fitness swimmers. The usual equipment was on the deck: paddles, fins, and pull buoys. A coach wearing a wetsuit was at the end of each lane, with 10 to 12 Masters swimmers. The first day they worked on butterfly.

The Masters practices started on the hour with a series of stretches. Everyone in the pool area stopped whatever they were doing, even the fitness swimmers, and participated. A coach on the deck led the stretches by demonstrating and whistle counts. This is how they finished each practice, along with a team cheer.

After the initial stretches, two of the three coaches got in the water and began working with the swimmers while one supervised, standing straight as a statue on the deck. Each coach provided freestyle and butterfly stroke corrections to the individuals as they swam.

Moving over to the fitness lanes, which were each filled with 8 to 10 swimmers of varying ages and abilities, I slipped into the water. Everyone was very courteous and polite, allowing faster swimmers to go past once they reached the wall. After completing my workout, which coincided with the completion of the Masters practice, I tried to communicate with one of the coaches. I don’t think he understood me, but the next morning when I arrived he acknowledged my presence with a wave and a smile.

Each day I returned to swim, I was greeted with a big grin from the woman at the front desk. Each workout I had was better than I ever expected on this vacation. After finishing my workout on my second day, I sat at the end of the pool and watched two women work on their breaststroke. Their technique was very good After they finished, I offered each a new USMS cap. Their faces lit up and they smiled ear to ear, in the universal language.

After each workout, I headed to the locker room and then the relaxation of the hot tub. The first time I tried to enter the hot tub, all the men already in the tub shook their heads and pointed to my suit as I prepared to enter the water. The obvious translation was that my suit had to come off before I entered. Who would have guessed?

Getting dressed the first day in the locker room, the guy next to me kept giving me funny looks. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong. I tried to communicate but it didn’t work. Finally he pointed to my tan lines and laughed. No one else in the locker room had tan lines, so maybe he had never seen them before. Living in Florida and swimming outdoors year round though, I had before never thought twice about them.

Before leaving the fitness center, while putting my shoes on in the lobby, I made another new friend, Joan. She understood a little English so we were able to chat for a few minutes. It was the first time I had a conversation with someone there without my son’s help.

The following day while walking to dinner with my family, I spotted a swimming store. It had all the latest equipment, but all I wanted was cap with Korean writing on it. I couldn’t find one, so I bought a cap with a Korean flag on it instead. The entire trip I never spotted a shirt or hat with Korean writing, only English.

Waiting to cross a street after the swim shop, a car pulled up to the intersection and stopped at the light. A young lady rolled down her window and shouted, “Hi, Mister Bob. How are you doing?” I thought my family was going to die. Here we were halfway around the world and I’d been only in the country for a couple days when a South Korean stops to say “hi” to me. It was my new friend Joan from the fitness center. I introduced my family to her and then she drove away.

I never should have worried about swimming in a foreign country. Swimmers are different—and we really do speak a universal language. The best part of our trip besides the whole family being together again was swimming and making new friends at the pool.


  • Human Interest