Fish Wanna-Bes : Spiritual. Transcendental. Cleansing. Primordial. It's water, and for the buoyant members of a national swimming club, it's home.

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Like a school of anthropomorphic fish, 70 swimmers move across the ocean's surface, arms punctuating the air, multicolored heads bobbing, water sputtering behind.

In a kind of collective synchronicity, the group slowly moves northward below the horizon, like a lumbering multi-tentacled beast.

What appears to be a water-groping mass is actually members of the Southern California Aquatic Masters Swimming Club, whose Sunday morning spiritual is a salt water baptism.

The West Los Angeles group is the largest of 450 clubs nationwide, with 600 registered members. In the past 13 years, the club has set 100 world records and 300 U.S. Masters Swimming records.

The United States Masters Swimming group was founded in 1970 by Navy Capt. Arthur J. Ransom as an outlet for swimmers who formerly competed in high school or college. In 1979, Clay Evans, a former Olympic swimmer for Canada, and Bonnie Adair formed the West Los Angeles SCAQ as the club is known.

The national club came to public attention recently when one famous member, former Democratic presidential candidate Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, posed for a political ad in his Speedos. A member of New England Masters, Tsongas appeared in the ad doing the butterfly stroke at a masters swimming competition, something consultants hoped would counteract the perception that Tsongas, who has suffered from cancer, was sickly. The ad, in turn, prompted news anchor Tom Brokaw to refer to Tsongas as the man who is "giving Speedos new visibility."

Although the ad did little to help Tsongas' political career--and who knows what it did for Speedos--it gave masters swimming a national profile, says Evans, who added that Tsongas "needs to stretch more and work on his kick."

The group's members, who are mostly white-collar workers between 35 and 45, range in skill level from novices to ex-Olympians.

"The core group is made up (60 to 70%) of people who never swam in college," says coach Gerry Rodrigues. "There is a pool lane for every speed" in the workouts, he said. "The word masters tends to influence the public perception of the program, but it simply means anyone over 19 years. Any level of swimmer is welcome."

Ron Kraft, a 33-year-old screenwriter who spends a lot of time at his computer, is fairly representative of the club's average member. When he first tried the workout, he could barely swim across the pool. But that was a month ago. He swims three times a week now at a 6:30 a.m. workout.

"I was really burnt out on working out (at a gym), and I wanted to find something that was less stressful on my body with more cardiovascular benefits," said Kraft, who lives in Venice. "So I tried it and it was really fun. I wanted the discipline of the coaching and the organization of the program, but I still wanted to enjoy it enough so that I wanted to come back. No one makes you feel inadequate regardless of their natural talent."

Rodrigues, a world champion open water swimmer, added ocean swim workouts to the program when he joined SCAQ in 1989.

Although most of the group's members take part in pool workouts, it is a special breed who arrive for the ocean swims thrice weekly.

"You just feel like you are out in the wild when you swim in the ocean," says a wet Randy Miller, 34, standing ashore at Manhattan Beach after completing the slightly more than two-mile swim from Hermosa Beach Pier to the Manhattan Beach Pier.

"Almost every ocean swim this year, dolphins have been swimming with us, under us and alongside us," said Miller who has been swimming with the West Los Angeles' SCAQ club for five years. "Sometimes pods of 20 or 30 dolphins.

"I heard them swimming on both sides--the high-pitched whistle, but I can't see very well in the water. You just feel a part of the ocean's system and more in touch with what is going on with the (marine) world. We herded an injured seal to shore this year. You never know what you are going to run into."

But sometimes the beach swims bring nature just a tad too close. Visions of "Flipper" notwithstanding, two swimmers last Sunday bailed out when they found themselves alone and surrounded by dolphins. And inevitably, some ocean swims are canceled after rains or when storm drain effluent is particularly toxic.

Many members of the group describe their physical activity in endorphin-influenced terms: spiritual, transcendental, cleansing, elating, primordial. Others say swimming in the club is an odd combination of isolation and togetherness.

Most members say they prefer the structure of the club over the randomness of a self-directed workout. Cracking the whip, as it were, are ex-Olympian coaches who guide members at public swimming pools or in the ocean at Will Rogers State Beach and Manhattan Beach.

Co-founder Evans, who won a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics for medley relay doing the butterfly, says: "The reason we are so successful is that all our coaches are ex-All-Americans. We ask them to come back to the sport and coach. And it is a good social outlet."

In addition to workouts, the group provides a newsletter, social gatherings, a home beer-brewing sector, relay-combo beer-drinking races (at private pools), club swimsuits and group trips.

Although only a small percentage of club members compete in the swim meets, SCAQ holds competitions three times a year. Fees are more than for most gyms, with a monthly membership of $45. Impeccably organized workouts are scheduled seven days a week at four West Los Angeles pools from 5:30 a.m. through 6:30 p.m.

At any given workout there can be between 20 and 70 people in a pool swimming in lanes. A coach stands over the din of splashing, goggled people and yells out directions.

Koko Kroesen, 67, and Marie Wallace, 63, met while swimming in the club. Kroesen has been swimming all of her life, first in her native Japan and then along the coast of Malibu when she immigrated here in 1953. Wallace is a novice. But the two women have discovered the same benefits.

"When I get into the water after work, I am thinking about all these problems," says Wallace, a West Los Angeles resident whose physique looks 20 years younger than her 63 years. "By the time I've done two laps, I can't even remember them. There is something spiritual about the water. It washes away tensions and worries. You get your rhythm down and go into a kind of hypnosis." As for Kroesen, whose engagement to her now-deceased husband decades ago was secured not with diamonds but a diving wet suit, swimming is simply essential for happiness.

"I feel like I used to be a fish" says Kroesen, a Santa Monica resident who teaches Japanese and who appears briefly in a Nike commercial doing the breaststroke. "I feel very free in the water. I am most comfortable in the water because it is the closest thing to nature. My goal at retirement was not to go on a cruise but to swim the butterfly for 200 meters. I haven't accomplished it yet."

But, she said, she'll continue to try "even if I reach 100 years old."

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