An Almost-30-Something Plea to U.S. Masters Swimming
I joined Masters almost five years ago. I had been a swimmer in high school. I moved on to running after high school and all during college. I ran a marathon and was training for a second one in the summer of 2004. During my running training, I began having chronic back pain. Wanting to still train, I decided to swim as a way to continue working out. I thought swimming would be good for my back and maybe I might be able to do triathlon, or possibly even swim a meet from time to time.
It is now five years later. I have yet to enter a triathlon, but I have swum in countless swim meets. I have competed in two Masters national championships. I am planning on attending a third this summer. And most importantly, swimming has given me a social network with lots of new friends.
I clearly remember my first practice with my current team. Honestly, I thought I'd swim with them for a while and then, eventually, switch teams or lose interest. My first practice was, let's just say, unconvincing. When I arrived, everyone in the pool was at least 10 to 20 (or more) years older than I was. It didn't seem like they were thrilled to be welcoming a young buck like myself into their practice. Nonetheless, I went back to the pool the next day, sore and ready to keep working. I am not sure what changed, but each time I went back to the pool for practice I found myself talking to more of the other swimmers. I started developed relationships and making friends, and that initial feeling that this was a temporary team dissipated.
For a couple of years I was the youngest swimmer in the group - the only one in the 18-24 age group. I felt as though I'd always be the outcast, the freshman, and then, without fail, slowly but surely more 20-somethings began joining the group. Now we are gradually becoming 30-somethings (I follow them into the 30-34 age group next year, YIKES!), but we still have a kinship to the 20-somethings and welcome them with open arms. We have had many 22- and 23-year-old "kids" join us for a practice or two, some for a few months and some even for an entire season. We now have a very solid core group of younger swimmers that seems to be stable. Our secret to keeping this group going and growing: Friendship. We seek out friendships among our fellow swimmers. We get to know one another both in the pool and out. We make a point to encourage and support one another without regard to age group. We all have days when swimming is the last thing on our minds. We just do not feel like going to the pool. One hundred percent effort seems like an unlikely expectation. But if you create an atmosphere where friendships can develop, meaning laughter and all-inclusive fun, well then you have a key ingredient to creating a successful Masters program. In the water we are all just people who swim. The minute you dive in, whether you are 20-something, 30-something or 80-something, you are able to appreciate your time at the pool and the interaction with your friends.
Growing up, we were offered stability by our age-group or college teams. You become a family of swimmers and you feel a connection with the other members of this family; you share lane space, you are roommates in the dorm and you connect as people. As Masters swimmers we have jobs, families and other commitments that keep us from sometimes establishing these similar typse of bonds. These "life factors" are the perfect reason to not just carve out an hour from your day to swim, but to embrace your teammates, your fellow swimmers and your coach. These people, though they may not be members of the same volunteer organizations, their children might not attend the same preschool and you may not have even been born yet at the time when your teammates' "remember-when stories" took place, share a common bond with you: Masters swimming.
The period after college is often stressful, confusing and, without a doubt, busy. Shortly after graduation, I remember missing college: I was uncertain about what I wanted, who I wanted to be and where I wanted to go. I missed my friends. I missed my college life. It is hard to promote Masters swimming to young people who may be struggling to make ends meet. If your team is mostly 40+ year olds, they probably see Masters swimming as a group of people their parents' age. It is hard to promote Masters swimming to "kids" who are caught somewhere between college life and the real world. But Masters was able to provide a bridge from that life I'd just left to the one I was just coming into. My teammates gave me a place to call home. I had friends, a stable schedule and an opportunity to work hard even when other "life factors" seemed uncertain. Masters swimming has given me the chance to make new friends (of all ages - even with swimmers who are my parents' age). I believe that Masters swimming is marketable to every age group. We need to shout from the rooftops that "Masters swimming is not stressful! There are no expectations! It is a place to make friends! You can stay in shape! And when nothing else seems stable, you are always welcome at the pool!"
To get and keep 20-something swimmers who turn into 30-something swimmers, we need to keep Masters swimming fun. We can also keep it competitive. And we need to welcome swimmers of every age into this family that we call Masters swimming.