Swimming just Swell for new South Whidbey masters team

On Monday night, there were five swimmers doing laps in the pool at the Island Athletic Club. Kristi Eager, the club's masters swim coach, said she wasn't sure why so few swimmers showed up for practice that night.

"We usually have a lot more," she said.

The situation said quite a bit about this masters program, which got going in March with little fanfare, but a lot of enthusiasm. As there should have been, since the swimmers were forming the first masters swim team on South Whidbey.

Called the Whidbey Island Swells, the new team numbers more than a dozen members. Drawing long-retired competitive swimmers, triathletes, novice speed swimmers and even a few independent masters competitors, the team is the newest facet in South Whidbey's community of endurance sports.

Having a hired coach is a new thing. For the past few years, swimmers at the club got together informally, helping each other with stroke technique and taking turns writing workouts. Taking a regular lead at practices was longtime master swimmer Kate Sutherland. She was one of several people who asked club management to form a masters team this year.

"We actually had pulled an informal swim group together," Sutherland said. "I coached. There's quite a group of people who swim for fitness and feel it's important to them and their lifestyle."

While masters swim programs are generally intended to prepare participants for competition, Swells members are in the pool for a variety of reasons. With swimmers who range in age from their 30s to their mid-60s, experience and ability varies widely on the team. Swimmers like Sutherland and Sheila McCue of Langley have most of the recent competitive experience under their swim caps. Sutherland earned three baby bronze -- or placing -- medals in May when she competed at the United States Swimming Short Course Masters National Championships in Honolulu. In April, McCue joined her teammate in regional competitions at the Weyerhaueser King County Aquatics Center in Federal Way.

Then there are the triathletes. Clinton's Marti Reiss, who does her competitive swimming as a prelude to biking and running, said she needed to get in the pool and swim with other people to become a better swimmer. She joined the team to improve her swimming skills, often the weak spot for many triathletes.

"I find that when there are other people in the water it motivates me to move faster, and that gives me a better workout than if I were swimming alone," she said.

The most important aspect of swimming as a team is the physical discipline it promotes. Coach Eager said Swells gets members to the club at least twice a week for Monday and Wednesday workouts that average 2,500 yards.

"A lot of the people, like Kate and Marti, wanted the swim team to help them in their competitions, but others belong to get a good workout in an organized setting," Eager said.

Also important in practice are drills designed to improve swimmers' strokes. That is something often overlooked by other masters coaches, Eager said.

"We work on stroke techniques and focus on speed, strength and endurance," she said.

Swells swimmers are taking to their new coach like, well, like ducks to water. Sutherland said that even though people can swim on their own -- which she did for some of her 17 years of masters swimming -- being on a team with a professional coach forces her to push the envelope and try new techniques.

Team members can also look to one another for swimming role models. Sutherland cited an older friend who, at age 92, recently competed in her age bracket in the Honolulu swimming championships, winning three gold medals.

"She broke the United States records in all three swims," she said. "The older swimmers are my heroes."

Due to the size of the pool at IAC, Swells will remain a small club. However, there is room for a few more, said team manager Carolyn Woods.

'We figure about 16 swimmers is just right," she said.

The swim team will no doubt evolve over time, following the desires of the team members. For instance, according to Woods, if the team wants to move into a more competitive mode, the club will aid the team in taking the direction it chooses. Coach Eager said several team members plan on competing in meets later this year.

To compete in masters swim competitions, swimmers must train in a program run by a United States Masters Swimming-affiliated aquatic facility, like that at IAC. Oak Harbor also has a masters program, which competes out of the city's Vanderzicht Pool.

Record editor Matt Johnson contributed to this story.

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