Still in the Swim : Former Olympians Enjoy Masters Competition

Times Staff Writer

Clay Evans, an All-American swimmer at UCLA from 1972 to 1976, was devasted when the United States and 64 other nations boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

Evans, who competed in the 1972 Games for Canada and then won a silver medal in the medley relay in 1976, took a year's hiatus from the Southern California Institute of Architecture's graduate program and earned a spot on the 1980 Canadian Olympic team.

"The boycott was a real blow," he said. "At 26, I knew I was getting pretty old to compete at that level. So that was my last chance to compete."

Or so he thought.

But Evans, 32, continues to compete against Olympians in masters swimming, a national program in which adults swim for exercise and compete in age groups of five-year intervals.

"I still love to compete," he said. "That's one of the main reasons I got into it."

And as coach of the Marina Masters Swim Club in Santa Monica, Evans gets into the pool with former collegiate and Olympic swimmers every day.

Among the club's 200 members are eight other ex-Olympians: Reggie Harrison (1928 Games), Al Hedberg (1932), Barbara Hounsell of Canada (1964), USC's Andy Strenk (1968) and Mark Chatfield (1972), Sike Pielen of West Germany (1972), Peter Rocca (1976) and Peter Dobson of Canada (1984).

"This is the strongest club in California and one of the strongest in the the U. S.," said Evans, who has been coaching the program since 1980. "The majority of the group is involved in competition."

His team won the Southern California masters regional competition in May and broke 10 U. S. masters records at a national competition at Fort Pierce, Fla., later that month. Evans established records in the 50-yard butterfly and the 100-, 200- and 400-yard individual medleys, and his time of 1:55.8 in the 200 was less than three seconds slower than his career best.

Harrison, 82, who was a member of the U. S. water polo team in the 1928 Games, said, "It's fun to compete, but there are very few people my age who can swim, much less competitively. So I don't swim competitively that much anymore, except for a relay every once in a while."

Judy Reuter, 32, who swam at Arizona State in the early 1970s and finished as high as seventh in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. finals, is another who still enjoys the competition.

"When I was 25, I was swimming the butterfly and I was ranked No. 1 in my age group," she said. "And I was swimming faster than I'd ever swum in my life. It really blew me away.

"Most of the people from my era never expected to swim competitively again after college. You just figured you'd passed your peak and after that it'd be just recreational swimming and paddling up and down the pool.

"But people started swimming masters and couldn't believe how good they were doing. We all found that the fitness level doesn't drop off as much as was previously thought. And, of course, the competitiveness comes back."

Not all of the club's members, however, are interested in competing. Some thrive on a good, clean workout.

"Some people get a kick out of competing, but it's just relaxation for me," said Hounsell, 35, who competed in the Tokyo Games when she was 13. "There's no better way to relieve stress than to swim a couple of miles."

Bruce Hartenbaum, 48, of Malibu, said he was a recreational swimmer for 15 years. Last year he joined the Marina Masters to improve his skills.

"I should've joined years ago," said Hartenbaum, an engineer. "It's a great way to get in shape. But I don't compete in any masters meets. I have enough competition in business."

Although David Nelson, 25, a former swimmer at Muir High School and then at Howard University in Washington, D. C., said he enjoys the competitive aspect of the masters program, that wasn't the reason he joined the club two years ago.

"Once I was out of school, it took me about a week to realize that if I didn't keep swimming in some program, I'd never swim again," he said. "And one of the big attractions of this group is swimming next to guys who have been the biggest stars in the world and are currently the best in their age group."

And that is a distinction not every masters club can claim.

Evans has structured a program so that the widest range of swimmers, from Olympian to novice, can work out together. The workouts are graded, meaning that while the ex-Olympian at one end of the pool swims eight laps, the inexperienced person swims only four.

"And the good swimmers go out of their way to encourage the novices," Reuter said. "The Olympic and collegiate swimmers are really just trying to maintain a certain level of fitness and competitiveness, but the novices come in and really improve."

During training, Evans walks the deck, barking out instructions, including the number of laps to swim and a target time for each lap.

But Evans, who was coaching a youth program before the Marina Masters program, said he was slightly apprehensive about structuring the workout too much. After all, these were doctors and lawyers, not children.

The members, however, said the workouts, which are scheduled in the mornings and the evenings 19 times a week at Santa Monica College and Venice and Santa Monica high schools, need to be highly structured.

"There's a limited amount of time and you need that structure to get the most out of that time," Hounsell said. "Just paddling around the pool isn't much fun. And if you're just going up and down the pool, there's no incentive to try harder."

Reuter said the structure helps the swimmer stay on a particular pace and work harder, eliminating boredom.

"Because the workout is graded, you don't have to be an Olympian to get something out of it," Hartenbaum said. "You can improve and learn how to swim even if you're not a super-competitive Olympian."

Of course, the masters program does offer a competitive ex-Olympian another chance to go for the gold.

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