LA JOLLA ROUGH WATER SWIM : Rodrigues, Knight Leave Field in a Fog

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A rosy-cheeked little girl with hope in her heart approached the check-in desk at La Jolla Cove shortly after noon Sunday.

"Are we going to get to swim today?" she asked in a small but determined voice.

After a delay of an hour and 45 minutes, she got her answer when the 60th La Jolla Rough Water Swim resumed.

Shark scares, polio outbreaks and wars have caused cancellation of one of the premier rough-water swims in the country 14 times since 1916. But never has it been a casualty of weather, much less fog.

"It's never cloudy in September. This is June weather," said Ken Kimball, a co-founder of U.S. Masters Swimming and a participant in the event since 1962. "There's been rain, and thunder and lightning, but it's only delayed it, never canceled it."

Officials reasoned that if you couldn't see the buoys that marked the 1-mile course, you couldn't swim it, not safely anyway.

"Our ultimate concern was for the swimmers," said Bill Uncapher, event director the past 16 years. "We've had a perfect track record (no deaths or major injuries) in 60 years, and I like to keep it that way."

Although each swimmer--1,200 participated--is required to sign a waiver that releases organizers of liability, Dave Lamott, chairman of Competition Committee, said litigation was still a concern.

"We could have been accused of being negligent," Lamott said. "All it would take is for one person to veer off course and lose them. I was very concerned that we would have to cancel."

Organizers speculated that the unseasonable fog was a result of the humid air hitting the chilly (63-degree) water. Although skies in La Jolla were sunny Saturday, Kimball said the water temperature had dropped five or six degrees.

Before the sun finally burned through the thick blanket of fog and increased visibility enough for lifeguard Marshall Parks to give clearance to resume the event, swimmers read, cradled babies in their arms, walked dogs and chatted with friends.

But those who traveled from out of town figured the wait wasn't going to ruin their day.

"It was nice to get a delay," said Gerry Rodrigues of Santa Monica, the overall men's masters winner. "Maybe more guys left because they didn't want to wait."

Rodrigues, who skipped the event last year but won it in his first try in 1988, didn't wait for the competition. He surged to a quick lead and held it until the final 800 yards, when Bari Weick and William Purcell started to close in.

"Then the three of us were lined up," Rodrigues said, "Bari really turned the jets on. It was an all-out sprint, and I was fatigued. We stayed together until the last 10 yards, where I managed to get a body length lead."

According to Rodrigues, organizers did the right thing in delaying. By the time his group--the men's masters--hit the water, conditions were close to perfect.

"They made sure you could see the first marker," he said. "They did a good job. There was no problem seeing."

Del Mar's Beth Knight also found the conditions to her liking. Knight easily won the women's masters title, finishing almost 90 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher in her age group. She is now seven for seven in this event, having won since 1984.

Knight said that although it has been four or five years since she has been seriously challenged here, she still feels pressure.

"I am very aware that this isn't handed to me," she said. "I have to work. Every year is different, and I'll just prepare and do the best I can, until my number's up."

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