Swim Trip to Orient Thrills All

Times Staff Writer

Four weeks ago, 24 American swimmers--ages 16 to 71--left for Hong Kong and China expecting camaraderie, friendly competition and, of course, the unexpected. They were not disappointed.

Most belonged to U.S. Masters Swimmers, a growing 18,000-member organization whose members compete in age groups starting at 25 to 29 and continuing into the 90s. They had been gathered into an unofficial international swim team by Betty Garwood, 57, a Garden Grove fourth-grade teacher and swimmer who had previously organized informal swim meets in Russia and Scandinavia.

On this trip "something electric happened" between the visiting Americans and their Chinese hosts, exclaimed Garwood Monday at a barbecue at the Newport Beach Tennis Club. The returning swimmers from the Newport Beach Masters had gathered there to share mounds of snapshots and tales of international good will with their friends. They also showed off three trophies they carried home from a serious Masters' swim meet against the Chinese in Hong Kong.

Communication, however, did pose a problem, admitted Garwood. Despite pages of typed information sent ahead to mainland China explaining that group members wanted to compete with other swimmers their age, their Chinese tour guide did not quite understand, she said.

Thus, for the first meet in Beijing, the guide had to call friends who called their friends in order to find swimmers to compete against the Americans. The ones who showed up were all in their 20s, Garwood said, making an age-group meet impossible for the mostly over-30 U.S. swimmers. They swam anyway, but "didn't pay any attention to times," she said

The next meet was held in Shanghai at China's largest residential sports college--for youngsters as young as 7. "They thought we were (going to be) America's best college swimmers," Garwood laughed. "When they saw us, they were dumbfounded," added team member Frank Reynolds, 53, of Tustin.

In that meet, the Americans first swam against 11- and 12-year-olds and then against the coaches. "We noticed the kids weren't beating us even though they could," she said. Once, she watched a Chinese swimmer slow down after realizing she was going to beat U.S. team member Lisa Zimmerman, a swim coach from San Diego.

After the meet, Zimmerman, 25, led a training session for the Chinese girls at the request of the Chinese coach who interpreted for her. She said she introduced new training techniques to them, such as using fists to swim (to raise elbows) and doing push ups on the walls. "They're really about 20 years behind in physical training," Zimmerman said. "But they're way ahead in mental training. They have a good attitude. They don't pressure the kids and the kids love it."

Zimmerman said she may form another group to return to the college and swim next summer. "We'd like to have an exchange. It would help both of us," she said.

"We felt, friendship-wise, we really started something there," said Garwood.

The last meet in the British colony of Hong Kong was highly organized, sanctioned by the Hong Kong Masters Swimming Program and covered by the Hong Kong Standard, which reported that "the California Masters swimming team stole the limelight . . . . "

Even though the meet drew swimming champions, including ex-Olympians and veterans from the Asian Games, the American women took first, the men third and the U.S. team first in overall number of points.

Reynolds, who last year was the national butterfly champion in his age group, said he competed only in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle events on the trip due to an operation. "I didn't turn in very good times, but I won everything," said Reynolds, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Southern California. "They thought I swam fast."

Reynolds said the older swimmers, including some ex-Olympians, were inspired by the example of the older U.S. swimmers. "One ex-Olympian came up to me afterwards and said 'Gee, I ought to do more of this.' He hadn't swum much since 1952," said Reynolds.

Like previous Garwood-organized international swim trips, this one had its social highlights as well, including a birthday party for three team members and a mock wedding for two swimmers from Costa Mesa: Janet Herschler, 31, an art director and Ken Millian, 30, a veterinarian.

The ceremony was modeled after a traditional Chinese wedding with the "bride" and "groom" wearing red, "parents" extolling the couple's best attributes and a "matchmaker" performing the service. "The Chinese were helping us hand in hand," said Garwood. Fifteen hotel staff made a Chinese wedding cake and worked three hours decorating the "bridal suite." Their guide, Ying Ying Deng, sang a song. The couple plan to marry legally in November.

People Very Friendly

"The thing that impressed me the most is that the people were so curious about us and friendly. The few who could speak English would just come up to us and talk," said Valeska Wolf, a flight attendant from Newport Beach.

Lin Tallman, a retired school principal from Balboa Island, said as soon as they saw the words "American swimmer" (written in Chinese) on her team T-shirt, the Chinese would come up to her and start gesturing as if they were swimming the breaststroke. Later, she learned the breaststroke is the first stroke taught to Chinese swimmers.

Garwood is already signing up swimmers for a possible second swimmers' trip to China as well as a 1987 swimmers' trip to Tahiti and New Zealand. Those interested may call the Newport Beach Tennis Club at (714) 644-0050.

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