BRINGING HOME THE GOLD (AND SILVER, TOO!)

When I joined U.S. Masters Swimming in 2010, I never dreamed I would compete in open water swimming.  I was a breaststroker, after all, and a sprinter at that.

In July, 2012 that all changed.  To win the Georgia Championship Series, I needed to compete in the Georgia Games Open Water Meet to rack up enough points to remain in the lead.  The series is comprised of four events (Short Course Yards, Long Course Meters, Open Water, and Short Course Meters), and I was leading my age group after the first two meets.

I will never forget showing up to Lake Acworth and wondering what I had gotten myself into.  There were three races (5K, 3K, and 1K), and I had signed up for the 3K and 1K in hopes of winning some points.  Was I NUTS?

As it turned out, I won a silver medal in the 3K and a gold medal in the 1K.  I was overjoyed!  More importantly, it was the most fun I had ever had at a swimming event.  Ever.  I was hooked.

In 2013, I couldn’t wait until July rolled around, so I could compete at the Georgia Games once again.  This time, I swam faster; however, the competition was tougher, and I went home with two bronze medals.  It didn’t matter, because I had a blast!

Last year, it was during the 3K race that my hip pain that was previously only an issue on land became problematic in the water.  For the first time, it affected my swimming, and I was forced to drag my right leg along for the ride.  Still, I swam well, enjoyed the competition, and took home two silver medals.

This year, I wasn’t going to race at all.  Between having hip surgery in December and not knowing for sure whether my hip could tolerate 4K’s of racing, I was going to give it a miss.  Add the ridiculously hot weather we’ve been having to the mix, and the fact that I didn’t get enough pool time logged during our 47-day road trip, it was a no-go for me.  Or, maybe not.

I decided to swim a trial 3K race in the pool to see if perhaps I could handle the yardage.  If I could swim pain-free and not struggle, I thought I would give the Georgia Games a try after all.

Surprisingly, I finished in 1:05, ten minutes slower than when I had swum the same time trial in 2014.  Given the circumstances, I was happy to finish at all!

In open water, though, there are factors that make swimming the same distance much more difficult.  There are no walls to push off of after each 25 yards of swimming, there is no black line to follow or lane lines to separate the swimmers, and the water is as clear as mud.  Literally.  Add the sun and warmer water to the mix and the need to “sight” the buoys on a frequent basis, and it is a much greater challenge.  Oh, I also forgot the fact that getting kicked in the head or smacked by an arm doesn’t happen in pool competition, but it does in an open water race, especially at the start.  I know, because it has happened to me.

Still, I had too much fun the first three times at Lake Acworth to sit this one out.

I drove to the lake this morning with the idea I would race the 3K and opt out of the 1K if I felt bad from the heat and hot water.  If my hip started hurting, I would quit.

The water was even hotter than I thought it would be, and I was surprised the meet wasn’t cancelled.  USMS’ rules state a limit of 86 degrees, and FINA (the international governing body for swimming) sets a limit of 87 degrees.  Surely, the water temperature hit those limits.

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That’s me (side view) on the right (front) without the cap getting ready to start the 3K.

I chucked my swim cap, hit the water, and swam cautiously until I knew my body could handle the heat.  Surprisingly, I was able to increase my speed throughout the 3K race rather than slow down or quit.  After turning at the last buoy for the last 1K to the finish, I kicked it up to full throttle and aimed for the finish.

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It wasn’t until after my 1K race that I learned how I had finished in the 3K.  The two races had only a short break in between, and the medals were announced while I was racing.  No matter. I was just ECSTATIC that I finished the 3K strong and felt good enough to return to the water for the 1K.  Besides, it was enormously gratifying to watch all of the swimmers who finished AFTER me, especially many of the young studs and studettes who appeared to be in their 20’s and 30’s.  Talking about a great sense of satisfaction!

The 1K was a diamond-shaped course, and I noticed after rounding the first buoy that I had company by my side.  No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake this blue-capped gal who was matching me stroke-for-stroke.  I was hoping she would swim off-course, but her sighting was good, and we both swam straight.

As we approached the last third of the race, I decided it was time to turn up the heat (as if I wasn’t hot enough already!), test out my hip, and kick with all I had left in the tank.

The effort paid off; I beat her to the finish by over a minute.

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When we met up onshore, we introduced ourselves, gave each other a big hug, and thanked each other for the great competition.  We each had swum the 3K as well, so we looked up our times on the results sheet to see if we had finished close in that race as well.  As it turned out, she beat me by less than two minutes!

Thankfully, Loukia is only 34 years old, and I’m 53, so we didn’t have to give up medals to each other.  That was a good thing, because just before we posed for this photo, Bruce put my 3K medal around my neck.  It wasn’t until afterwards that I looked down to see which one it was.  I just assumed it was bronze, and I was just so happy to win ANY medal!

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When I finally looked down at it, I had to pick it up and turn it back and forth before I was convinced it was actually GOLD.  For the first time in four years, I won gold in the 3K.  (There were only four in my age group, but still…)

The gold medal winner in the 1K hadn’t swum the 3K, so she was fresh for her race and beat me for the gold.  During the 1K medal ceremony, another name was called for the bronze, so I thought my chance for a medal was zilch.  When the name was called for the silver, though, it was mine.  YES!  Once again, I won a gold and silver; however, this time they were switched, and the gold was for the longer race.

The sense of satisfaction I feel today is the greatest I have felt since becoming a USMS competitive swimmer.  What a fabulous day!

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U.S. Masters Swimming medal winners from Georgia Masters

2014 FINA MASTERS SWIMMING WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS IN MONTREAL

When I left competitive swimming after high school, I never thought I would ever compete again, especially in any sort of national competition. Fast forward to 2010 when I joined U.S. Masters Swimming and entered Spring Nationals, because it was just up the freeway at Georgia Tech. Since then, I have swum at several Nationals, from Greensboro, North Carolina to Mission Viejo, California. Those experiences were huge for me, way beyond what I had ever dreamed of doing with my swimming. Now, here it is, four years into my Masters swimming “career,” and I am in Montreal, Canada competing at the 2014 FINA Masters World Championship!

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 Although it sounds impressive, the qualifying times for the Masters World Championships are actually slower than U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS) national qualifying times. I qualified in every event except for one; whereas, this year I didn’t make qualifying times for Nationals. Since non-qualifiers still get to compete in three events (rather than six) at USMS Nationals, we’ll be heading to Maryland after Worlds and a few days of sightseeing in Quebec City.

I may be in the lowest 20% in my age group here at Worlds, but I’m so happy to be able to be here to compete. How fortunate the swim meet is just up north and located in one of the two Canadian cities on my bucket list (Quebec City being the other)! Last year it was in Italy, and next year it will take place in Russia.

Here in Montreal, there are 1,500 Americans competing in a group of 5,868 swimmers from 93 countries. In all, there are 9,000 athletes competing in Masters swimming, open water swimming, synchronized swimming, diving, and water polo.

The aquatic complex is a beehive of activity; tanned and (mostly) fit wet bodies ages 25 to 97 have completely taken over the Parc Jean-Drapeau Aquatic Complex. It’s insane! What a scene, and I’m lovin’ every minute of it.

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The warm-up pool:  8 lanes for 5,868 swimmers!  It got much more crowded than this…

Although FINA, the international governing body of five aquatic sports, has done a poor job of running this meet (the complaints are wide and universal amongst the international swimmers), it hasn’t dampened the spirit around the pools. The excitement and enthusiasm is contagious; I can’t think of a better place to people watch! It is really quite a festive atmosphere, seeing a bunch of fit swimmers in their racing suits, smiles on their faces, laughing, giving each other hugs and high-fives.

Under the big tent by the main competition pool, it’s one big international social scene. Teams gather in clusters, swimmers spread out their towels, and they sprawl out all over the place leaving no path to walk. (Thanks to FINA and the facility not supplying chairs.) To get from the warm-up pool to the marshaling zone where swimmers line up for their races, it’s an obstacle course. I’ve gotten pretty good at hopscotch!

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Hanging out under the tent with Bruce, a couple of teammates, and my USMS Discussion Forums buddy, “King Frog” (aka Allen Stark).  At the meet, Allen broke the world record in his age group for 200 breaststroke!

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It’s a festive atmosphere with many different languages being spoken and many excited conversations going on at once. In addition to swimming talk amongst teammates, another “sport” is taking place between swimmers of different countries: trading swim caps, t-shirts, and pins. I got in on that action as can see in the photos below:

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Andreas and I traded caps from Berlin and Auburn University.

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My Canadian cap-trading partner.

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This swimmer was from Costa Rica.

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Damian, from Team Hong Kong

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My new Chinese friend was out of team caps; however, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on my USMS cap (which I got for free at Nationals), in exchange for the official World Championships cap he had just purchased at the Speedo store for $11.99.

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Yes, he’s Italian!

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And, she’s from Brazil.

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I was so happy to make a trade for an Australian cap after having spent so much time in her country over the years!

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When I told Peter (next to me) that I loved his home town of Prague, he didn’t want to trade caps.  Instead, he wanted to just GIVE me his competition cap as a gift!  I insisted on giving him a U.S. Masters cap as a gift, too.

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I keep a very limited presence on Facebook under an alias; however, I found it necessary to keep tabs on Team U.S.A.’s World’s page to get updates we weren’t receiving otherwise.  In the process, I got to know Andy, a Canadian who graciously provided a lot of tourist information to us Americans, so we would enjoy our time in Montreal.  I was so excited when I finally caught up with Andy and his wife on relay day.  We even ended up swimming in the same heat of one of the two relays I competed in that day.

As for the actual racing, it has been exciting to see several of my teammates and U.S. Masters friends win some impressive hardware, including gold, silver, and bronze medals. Since I am not anywhere near that caliber of swimmer, I’m just happy to be able to be here and race. I’m having a blast!

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Some of my Georgia Masters teammates with Tim Waud, Team U.S.A. Head Coach

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Georgia Masters teammates

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Marianne Countryman

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Bruce and I visited the Biosphere.  (This is what you saw in the background of the photo at the warm-up pool.)  Over my shoulder is a view down to the main competition pool at the Parc Jean-Drapeau Aquatic Complex.

For more photos from World’s, check out my album at: http://www.fototime.com/inv/DB1CA7062961254

Sailing the Waterways of the Potomac

Here’s a bit of trivia for you, compliments of David, sailor extraordinaire:  The Potomac is part of Maryland; every part of it, all the way up to the waters’ edge that meets Virginia.

On Sunday, David and Melody took us sailing on their Pearson 28, their pride and joy named, “Paradiso” (Paradise).  It truly is paradise; especially for David, who has a high-stress, high-level job with the federal government.  Once he is on the water, you can see the stress melt right off his face; pure joy.

Bruce and I felt honored that David would not only take us sailing; he taught us how to sail his boat.  Well, sort of…  David is an excellent teacher, don’t get me wrong.  But, a Pearson 28 isn’t like a Laser or some other little boat that can be handled solo with ease.  It takes a team to get it right; especially if half of us are newbies!

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If you are used to handling a tiller, like I was in the limited experience I had sailing as a kid, handling a wheel is a different story.  Instead of pushing the tiller away from you to get the boat to turn toward you, the wheel turns just as it does in a car; turn to the right and the boat will turn to the right.  But, the wheel on a sailboat isn’t as responsive as a wheel on a car.  There is a bit of a delay, so it is easy to overcorrect; something both Bruce and I did numerous times before we got the hang of it.

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What a blast!  It was a lovely day on the Potomac.  And, as we settled in and enjoyed the sun and breeze, we were informed we were in/at/on Maryland!  Quantico Yacht Club was on the Marine base, in Virginia, however, it becomes Maryland, as soon as you are on or in the water.  So, why not add it to my list of states traveled?  It is, after all, a state I have been to, but never stepped foot on!  That’s gotta be worth somethin’.  Put an * next to it, just like Barry Bonds should have next to his homerun record.

Melody prepared a delicious picnic for our little sailing adventure and we enjoyed it while nestled in a quiet cove. The entire experience kept bringing me back to my childhood, when Dad would take us sailing on our Cal 20.  Mom would pack us up some Hebrew National Salami sandwiches and toss in some fruit, chips, and Shasta sodas.  Remember Shasta?  They were inexpensive and pretty darn good!  Dad’s favorite part of lunch was actually dessert:  Frozen Milky Way bars.

After lunch, dad would take a snooze and my big brother and sister would sail the boat.  I was the youngest (Paul called me, “Motor Mouth” or “Mighty Mouth” back in those days.  Now, he just calls me “Old Fart”, every time he phones me on my birthday.  But, I keep reminding him that he will ALWAYS be 31/2 years older than me…).  As the youngest in the family, I was often pushed aside and told (or yelled at) to, “Get out of the way!”  Therefore, I never learned to sail as good as my brother and sister did.  But, it was fun, anyway.

I don’t remember my biggest sis, Gail, on many (or any?) of those sailing excursions.  She was the smart one, missing out on all that bickering…

Those sure were great memories; bickering and all.  And, being in/at/on Maryland’s Potomac, brought those memories flooding back.

Remember Fresca? I thought that soda was long gone!  My mom used to drink it, along with Tab.  I forgot how tasty that stuff really was, until Melody offered me one on the boat.  Of course, she doctored hers up a bit and added dark rum to the bubbles.  She called it a “Frisky” and it was gooood.  After we returned to Virginia (Quantico Yacht Club, that is…), I had a Frisky, too.  But, wait!  I was technically still in Maryland, because we kicked back on the boat to enjoy some happy hour cocktails, before heading on home.

Before we head out, let me show you something Melody painted- from scratch- in the kiddie room at the yacht club.  She, like David, is quite the talented artist.  And, she has an imagination that is such a joy.  Check it out!  This is sure to bring a smile and warm your heart.

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Remember Turtle Wax?  Check out what those turtles are up to, at the top left side of the painting.  And, how about Elvis?  He’s down in the lower right.  In between, there are all sorts of fun things goin’ on; plenty to keep the kiddies (and their parents) smiling!  Personally, I like the dolphins the best.  Did you notice that it’s a male dolphin chasing after the female?  If I were Flipperette, I would have been chasing after Flipper; no doubt.

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The following day, it was rainy and dreary which was just fine with us.  After having five perfect days of beautiful weather, who could complain?  Besides, we were content with spending the day, relaxing at Melody and Dave’s, not doing much of anything at all.  I had my netbook with me, so Bruce and I took turns catching up on e-mails and surfing the ‘net.

I was ecstatic after reading one of those e-mails in my inbox; a notification from my U.S. Masters Swimming team that a relay I swam on at Athens, in 2011, made 2011 FINA World Top Ten Rankings!  Whaaaat?  For real?  I had to look it up on FINA (world governing organization for swimming, including Olympics), just to make sure.  There it was; we were ranked 9th IN THE WORLD, in our age group!

I knew the day we swam that we had broken a state record.  That alone sent me into a happy dance; high-fives all around. But, then, we learned through another e-mail that we had made the U.S. Masters Swimming Top Ten, placing 4th in the country.  You should have seen me kick up my heels then…  But, this was awesome!  It was great news; especially coming off Nationals, where I didn’t swim my best times, due to a muscle strain that occured one week before the biggest meet of the year.  I still swam well (considering) and had a blast, but I was frustrated.

Nothing like getting great news when you are already happily humming along on a terrific vacation!

The following day, we said our goodbyes and began our rail journey back to Atlanta, traveling aboard the Crescent, once again.  Before we boarded our train, we wandered around Union Station, admiring the beautiful architecture and new renovations.

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Our train ride back was pretty much the same experience as our ride up to D.C., except for our dining companions who were quite the enthusiastic and enjoyable couple.  They just loved being on the train; a new experience for them.  So, it was fun to chat over dinner, comparing travel experiences.

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And, that is where our journey ends; back in Atlanta where it all began.  It was the perfect vacation; visiting great people who we are proud to call our friends, touring our nation’s capitol, enjoying great food, and doing photography; all while enjoying it with my favorite person of all: Bruce.

Thank you for joining us on our journey.  I hope you enjoyed reading my travel tales as much as I enjoyed writing them!