Twenty-four years ago, I arrived in Austin, a young bride and a stranger to this vast state. Lured to this landlocked city by graduate opportunities at the University of Texas, my husband, Nate and I left California to embark on the adventure of a new life together.
Being a former college swimmer, I knew my first order of business would be to find a local community of masters swimmers. Over the years, I had tried solo swimming off and on, and the result was a general lack of consistency, enthusiasm, and enjoyment. However, in my previous experiences traveling and searching for my swim fix, I knew organized swim programs offered the accountability and challenge I needed. Masters swimmers welcome guests like long lost relatives, and after a few minutes of conversation we realize we are all just six degrees of separation away from Michael Phelps.
Technically, masters swimming is defined as an organized program of adult swimmers, ages 18 and up, participating in coached workouts with optional competition. The largest masters swimming organization is United States Masters Swimming (USMS), with over 70,000 adult fitness swimmers across the country. The roster of these teams is a melting pot of triathletes, ex-college or high school swimmers, open water swimmers, beginning swimmers, pregnant swimmers, and a few injured athletes who stumble onto the deck from other sports in an attempt to stay fit. Other organizations around the country such as the Austin-based American Swim Association, also offer competition and training opportunities for masters athletes.
Since living in Austin, my masters swim journey has taken me all over town. As a graduate student at UT, my first home pool was the crumbling, near condemned Gregory gym. Later, I moved across campus to the spectacular Lee and Joe Jamail swim center’s rigorous Longhorn Aquatics program. When having babies left me desperate for childcare, I found my way to the Jewish Community Center that offered babysitting right next to the pool. My tour has also taken me through the country club circuit at Barton Creek and Lost Creek Country Clubs, and occasional visits to t YMCA and Lifetime Fitness. It has also included frigid dips in Deep Eddy and Barton Springs, and a recent sabbatical to Austin Swim Club. Eventually my search led me to my home team, the Western Hills Athletic Club (WHAC), a facility tucked in Rollingwood, which became my own personal Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.”
Friendships forged through water possess a uniqueness that is difficult to describe to non-swimmers. We are stripped down, literally baring (almost) all. The water acts as a conduit exposing emotion, and we are able to perceive one another’s moods. When we see each other in public, we make classic swimmer jokes like, “You look so different with your clothes on.”
The workouts possess mysterious healing properties. The rhythm of the laps, the breathing, the structure of a set—a magic elixir producing a sense of catharsis and clarity. The sanctuary of the pool is the great equalizer of status, gender, ethnicity, personality, and egos. A swimmer with Olympic rings tattooed on his shoulder, swims just feet away from a middle aged woman recovering from breast cancer. Entrepreneurs, doctors, stay-at-home moms, students, professors, counselors, teachers and those enjoying retirement all converge in the same place, seeking the communal experience of a shared aquatic workout.
During kick sets, conversations hover over the water as friends catch up on each other’s lives. Locker rooms are a hub for networking, discussing movie reviews, reminiscing the glory days, bragging of children’s accomplishments, sharing travel adventures, celebrating new grandbabies, and discussing local politics.
Coaches of different personalities and workout styles bring creativity and intensity to each workout. One coach may act like a drill sergeant, while another has the presence of a kindergarten teacher. Within a workout, one swimmer may be training for a competition, another may use swimming as a time of meditation and stress relief. Talented coaches are intuitive, being able to assess what each member of the group might need on any given day, as adding valuable feedback to help athletes improve things like their stroke technique. As the conductor of the practice, the coach delivers the sets, arranges swimmers according to speed, decides the intervals, and acts as master motivator for the group.
Recently, my home pool closed for renovation and I reluctantly moved across town to an unfamiliar swim program. The anticipation of the move generated anxiety in most of the regulars of our cozy family at WHAC. We scattered across the city assuring one another that we could survive our hiatus from our routine. Challenged to leave our comfort zone, we set out as explorers to new lands.
Reunited this January, in the midst of a cold winter, we trickled into the family reunion spilling out our stories of our swim adventures at other programs. While one program has a ritual of counting down like Navy Seals to a mass start to practice, another program has a laid back culture with just a workout on the board with swimmers coming and going as they please. What most of us discovered is that we had a thread of commonality with swim friends everywhere. Overall we had survived our displacement, expanded our knowledge, and had come to appreciate the uniqueness of our own program while bringing home new ideas, friendships, and memories.
The invitation to be part of this masters swim tribe is open to all levels of swimmers. If you’re curious about swimming with a group, there are a plethora of masters swim communities throughout Austin. To learn more about being part of a masters swim team, check out the local programs through USMS swimming, as well as your local health club, country club, YMCA, and or neighborhood pool.
United States Masters Swimming local programs:
American Swim Association:
Kristen Turner has been a swim/triathlon coach for over 30 years. She was a Division I swimmer at Pepperdine University and has participated in triathlons and as an Ironman. She currently works as a licensed professional counselor, masters and youth swim coach. She is also a personal trainer with the Whole Foods engine two diet immersion programs.