Two-and-a-half years ago, Lin Tallman hardly knew her butterfly from her breaststroke.
The retired Los Angeles elementary school principal had never considered swimming in a 50-yard pool nor standing on a starting block. She was, in fact, just cooling off in the shallow end of the Newport Beach Tennis Club pool when she was approached by a quietly enthusiastic woman who wanted her to sign up for a 10-minute kick board contest.
Even though she barely finished four laps with a kick board, “one thing led to another,” Tallman recalled recently at pool-side. “The next thing you know I’m a Masters Swimmer--and I’m signed up to go swim in Russia!” Tallman, 62, toweled off after her now-routine 36-lap workout in her striped Speedo, goggles snapped around her swim cap. She grinned. “Like my husband says, ‘No one says “no” to Betty Garwood.’ ”
Others unable to resist Garwood’s friendly persuasion include several gray-haired swimmers of varied skill who have joined the Newport Beach Masters swim group (a chapter of the U.S. Masters Swimming program) to train regularly and compete in regional “friendship” meets.
They include Orange County Democratic Central Committee Chairman Bruce Sumner, 60; flight attendant Valeska Wolf, 44; Lin and Tab Tallman, and dozens of others who followed Garwood to Russia and Scandinavia to swim in her self-styled international swim meets.
They include the Russians, Finns, Swedes and Danes who have agreed to set up these meets for Garwood’s team.
China Trip Next
And now Garwood has won over the Chinese. On June 19, Garwood will lead the Newport Beach Masters Swimmers and assorted acquaintances to China, where they will compete unofficially against the Chinese June 25, 29 and July 3 in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
“These are international firsts,” said Garwood, 57, a fourth-grade teacher at Stanley Elementary School in Garden Grove and “international swim chairman” for the Newport Beach Masters--also known as “the Blue Whales.”
A lifelong swimmer, Garwood--known to friends as a “compulsive organizer"--was thrilled to find organized swimming seven years ago in the growing movement to involve older athletes in competitive sports. In Masters Swimming (affiliated with the Amateur Athletic Union), swimmers compete in age groups, starting at 25 to 29 and continuing into the 90s.
While some have been world-class swimmers, there are no time trials, no qualifying heats, and everyone--no matter how slow--gets to swim. Masters swimmers say an unusual side effect of joining the program is that they start to look forward to birthdays--particularly those that push them into the next category, where they will gain a competitive edge.
If nobody in your age group shows up, you automatically win. “That’s how I got most of my medals,” laughed Garwood, who doesn’t keep track of her own times. In the Hawaiian relays (a meet in which swimmers time themselves in their own pools and mail in the results), Garwood said, “Four of us grandmothers came in first in the world.”
Last April, the U.S. Masters Swimming organization held its first official international competition in New Zealand. Another international meet is scheduled next year in Tokyo.
But Garwood decided to arrange her own international competition since she and others could get vacations only in the summer and needed time to raise travel money. Sumner recalled that qualifications for Garwood’s 1982 trip to Russia were simply: “Do you want to go? Do you have the time? Can you pay your own way?”
Garwood had had experience directing foreign tours of sorts. Named elementary school “Teacher of the Year” in 1980 by the county Department of Education, Garwood makes a practice of rewarding her most motivated and responsible students with a personally guided tour to the summer Olympics. But her students stayed home in 1980, when the United States boycotted the Moscow Games. Garwood went anyway with a group from Swimming World Magazine and, she said, found the grown-ups as much fun as her students. In addition, the Russians they met that year “treated us beautifully,” she said.
“I told them then, ‘I’m coming back.’ I said, ‘A bunch of us grandmas will come and swim with your grandmas. What do you think?’ They said, ‘Great.’ ”
Working through the Russian Travel Bureau in New York, a swim coach was contacted in Pyatigorsk, a village north of the Caucasus Mountains. While there is no organized Masters Swimming in Russia, the coach had rounded up about 30 swimmers over age 25 for the meet.
The meet took place in an indoor pool in Pyatigorsk. During the first race, Garwood recalled, spectators lined the balcony. “There were no smiles. They thought we were serious, out to get the Russians. . . .
“We immediately started cheering for the Russians. It only took a couple of events, and they were cheering for us, too,” she said.
Garwood’s international meets are unofficial and unsanctioned by either the U.S. State Department or the U.S. Masters Swimmers. “We say come and swim with us, and don’t worry about the rules.” If, for example, a swimmer does not follow international rules such as touching the side with both hands during a breaststroke turn, he or she is only informed of the rule, not disqualified.
The U.S. team was clearly superior to the Russians, Garwood said. Even Lin Tallman, who didn’t think she would make it to the end of the 50-yard pool, knew the thrill of victory. “I swam faster than any of the 60-year-old Russian women. . . . That’s because there weren’t any,” she laughed.
But at the end, no one added up points. “The Russian coach said that peace and friendship won,” said Garwood. “We’ll all remember that. When you have that kind of feeling on a trip, then it’s fun to plan another one.
“We know their people talked about our meet afterwards. They had an entirely different feeling about Americans than what they had been taught. And we expect the same thing in China.”
In 1983, she took many of the same swimmers on a trip to Scandinavia, where they swam in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
Swimmers say they appreciated getting to know the foreign swimmers through the locker room camaraderie, banquets, toasts and presents after the swim meets.
Newly made Russian friends were invited to a mock wedding between two members of Garwood’s group, who later did marry and now live in North Dakota. Not surprisingly, the ceremony was organized by Garwood. “Betty finds everybody’s talent and uses it,” enthused Tallman. An artist in the group drew up a certificate, singers performed a Gregorian chant and sang the theme from “Doctor Zhivago,” and the “service” was performed by Sumner, a former Superior Court judge.
In addition, there was a real marriage between a member of Garwood’s group and a Russian she met there. The member declined to be identified or reveal details about the romance. The American swimmer, however, said she periodically calls and visits her spouse, who still lives in Russia.
Garwood said she arranged the China trip through a Santa Ana travel agency that contacted the Chinese International Travel Service. “I typed pages and pages of information to let them know what kind of a group we are. I stressed that we are not all hot swimmers but that we are of all ages and all abilities.” Those going on the China trip range in age from 16-year-old Janet Scuorzo of Orange, N. J., to Tab Tallman, who will turn 71 during the trip.
Also participating will be Lisa Zimmerman, a San Diego swim coach and writer who is finishing a book on lifelong swim conditioning called “Swim for Life.” Her book will include recent research by medical doctors William Weir, Henry Slotnick and Charles Barr, all Masters Swimmers, that refutes the commonly held assumption that swimmers’ performances decline 1% each year past their 20th birthday, said Zimmerman, who will turn 25 in July.
“Some people who swam in college and high school are turning in faster times in their 30s than they did in their teens and 20s,” she said. “Especially men. Women tend to peak a little younger.”
Devote Less Time
Mature swimmers do not usually turn in times as fast as their younger counterparts because most do not believe it is possible, nor do they devote the same amount of time as younger swimmers in training, Zimmerman said. World-class swimmers train as much as six to eight hours a day, six or seven days a week, she said. “Unless you’re obsessed, no one has the time.”
The Newport Beach Masters train with Hungarian-born coach Peter Fogarassy, who was a world-class swimmer in the 1960s. They train three times a week: on Saturday and Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. The hourlong workouts at the private Newport Beach Tennis Club are optional, but most do try to prepare before an international meet, said Garwood.
“You don’t want to be so bad you’re embarrassed, so you stay in shape,” said Sumner of Balboa, who works out four times a week, either during lunch or after work.
Sumner, a competitive swimmer in high school, said he was interested in winning when he first returned to swimming 10 years ago. In three months, he said, he was within 10 seconds of his best time ever for the 100-yard backstroke. Now he competes in the individual medley and says: “I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody.”
Most Masters Swimmers use swimming, as he does, for physical conditioning, he said. “To me, there’s a great correlation between physical condition and the ability to think. In my view, swimming is the best conditioner there is,” said Sumner, who also bicycles and plays tennis. “Jogging is a disaster.”
Swimming, which exercises the cardiovascular system without wearing down joints, tendons and ligaments, attracts “running refugees,” said Zimmerman, referring to those who become injured in jogging or aerobics. Several surveys have shown swimming to be the most popular sport in the United States, she said. Masters Swimming has grown 15% for the last three years and now has 18,000 registered swimmers.
In addition, swimming offers mental benefits. It “blocks out your senses of hearing and a lot of sight. It’s sensory deprivation in a way. All you can do is think,” Zimmerman said.
“It’s a different world when you get in the pool,” said Garwood. “You get out feeling good, even when the coach works you out for a mile.”
“After a hard day, I lose track of how many laps I swim. I stare at the bottom of the pool and go back and forth for a half hour or so and come out feeling wonderful,” said Sumner.
“It’s a nice way to start the day when you’re retired,” said Lin Tallman. “It feels like a reward for working. It emphasizes the freedom you have.”
“It relieves all the stress and frustration of my job,” said Valeska Wolf of Newport Beach, who has been a stewardess for 24 years. Now she works out three times a week and every Saturday and Sunday with the coach.
When she joined five years ago, she said, she “wasn’t much of a swimmer.” Since then, she said, she has improved immensely, thanks mostly to Garwood. “If I don’t show up, she calls and says, ‘Where are you?’ She sends lists (of participants in events) with your name on it.”
Garwood does not want anyone to be left out. “The first thing people always tell me is ‘I’m too busy.’ Adults are busy anywhere. I say we’re all too busy. You come when you can. Once they start coming, they feel good at the end and keep on coming.”
And she doesn’t want anyone to have a bad time. She psychs up the tour group by sending them a newsletter with information about the other team swimmers. She makes up “brainteasers” and getting-to-know-you games for the airplane. “I write a paragraph with fun facts about every person going. I say that they have to let me know these things or else I’ll make it up. I still make up some of it,” she laughed.
Many veterans of Garwood’s swim trips have already signed up for her trip to Hawaii and the South Pacific in April, 1987.
“She really believes that the way to a better world is for people to get to know each other,” said Sumner. “If you go on a vacation, why not get involved with people and places you’re going? It’s a wonderful approach. If we’re ever going to have real world peace, that’s what it will be based on.”