Swimming is masterful at any age

Clapping congratulations for Kurt Johnson after his 200-yard freestyle swim, Whidbey Island Swells members Sheila McCue, Dan Gregory, Kristi Eager, Marty Fernandez and Kate Sutherland, along with Marilyn Gregory, were doing as much encouragement as swimming at Sunday
Clapping congratulations for Kurt Johnson after his 200-yard freestyle swim, Whidbey Island Swells members Sheila McCue, Dan Gregory, Kristi Eager, Marty Fernandez and Kate Sutherland, along with Marilyn Gregory, were doing as much encouragement as swimming at Sunday's meet.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Sitting in a hot tub Monday night, Jon Dewit had good reason to relax.

The day before Dewit, a 50-year-old South Whidbey masters swimmer, competed in his first swim meet in 27 years. In Anacortes with seven other members of his team, the Whidbey Island Swells, Dewit was trying to find out whether he still had his competitive swimming instincts.

Entered in two of his best events from his high school and college days, the 200 and 500-yard freestyle, Dewit did notice a difference. While the intensity of the competitors -- who varied in age from 18 to 89 -- felt about right, the numbers on the electronic timing system tracking his swims were not. At least, not as he remembered.

"It's substantially slower," he said to the general laughter of three other teammates in the hot tub with him.

Fortunately for the Swells, Sunday's meet was not about breaking personal records or even winning. It was the first meet for the team, which started swimming together last summer. Comprised of both former high school and college swimmers, experienced masters competitors, and several people completely new to the sport, the Swells were just trying to find out if months of training together was paying off.

That goal is often good enough in masters competition. Open to swimmers 18 and older, Washington's masters circuit gives swimmers past their school days a reason to continue working at their sport. And for some, it provides an entirely new experience.

Kurt Johnson, a Freeland resident who until this year did most of his swimming by himself in Holmes Harbor, was competing for the first time Sunday. A triathlete for the past few years, Johnson said it was a bit of an adjustment from open water to pool swimming. After he figured out how to prevent his goggles from filling with water on the dive starts of his two individual freestyle events and a mixed relay, Johnson took to competition like, well, a duck to water.

"Now I know some numbers," he said, talking about the 7 minute, 44 second 500 freestyle he swam -- 20 seconds faster than the best he has ever done in practice.

More than anything, the four hours the Swells spent at the meet paid off in great moments. After a win in the opening event, a 200-yard freestyle relay, the Swells watched 52-year-old Langley swimmer Dan Gregory swim his first masters event in more than a decade in the 50 breaststroke. Next came Jean Fankhauser, who at 48 was giving competitive swimming a first try. His time of 1:28.52 in the 100 freestyle was so much faster than he'd ever gone in practice, it drew cheers from all the Swells.

South Whidbey teacher Sheila McCue grabbed the team's first medal of the day in the same event, winning in the women's 50-year-old age group with a speedy 1:09.51 100 free. The only other Whidbey woman at the meet, veteran masters swimmer Kate Sutherland, sliced 20 seconds off her seed time in the 200 individual medly and registered the best time of the day for a woman over 50.

Also speedy, though he wouldn't admit to it, was Marty Fernandez. Best known as the owner of The Smilin' Dog, the tall, long-armed Fernandez sprinted the 50-yard freestyle in two relays.

Though it might seem to most that food might be his first love, Fernandez said coming back to the pool two decades after his last swim meet revealed the truth.

"It's the thing I like to do," he said.

The other thing he liked, as did everyone else on the team, was the camaraderie of swimming and cheering together. Sutherland, who has been without a team for the past couple years, said having company at this swim meet -- and at the team's twice-weekly practices -- was inspiring.

"It's nice to have a mixture of men and women having fun," she said.

It would be fair to say that most of the Swells members were just as impressed with their competition as with their own performances. Two competitors over the age of 80 at the meet, as well as a half dozen in their 60s made everyone on the team feel young. They also had the Swells looking forward to another half a lifetime of being in the pool.

The Swells are coached by Kristi Eager, a masters swimmer herself and former high school coach. The Swells practice Mondays and Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. at Island Athletic Club. The team will be competing in other meets later this winter and in the spring. New swimmers are always welcome.

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