Friday, September 16, 2011

New Orleanians get in the swim before dawn

Light emanates from a concrete building on Isidore Newman School campus as several shadowy figures cross the football field, heading toward an open door. They are not players on the Greenies football team, but adults, ages 22 to 70, who get together before dawn three days a week to practice swimming.

“I’ve never found anything else that I was willing to get up early for,” said Ross Kling, a physician.

Now 45, he’s been part of the swim group since graduating from medical school in 2002. By the time he returns home from practice, Kling’s two children are up and getting ready for school.

The morning workouts attract a wide range of swimmers, from novices to former high school or college competitors. A few aim to improve their triathlon performance; others continually try to develop better technique. All want to become more physically fit with a total body workout.

“Everybody just goes at their own speed,” said Linda Tufton, said to be the most consistent at attendance. 

A working mother of four grown children, she started nine years ago, alternating no-impact swimming with jogging. Cross-training has improved her ability in both sports.

“I owe it all to Marshall,” she said.

Marshall Love has coached the Newman morning swim since 1997. Though he owns swim schools based in New Orleans, Covington and Lafayette, there’s something unique about this “happy, positive group,” he said.

“I always end up liking the people I’m swimming with,” said Gerry Vetter, 57, an environmental engineer who has been in the group for 25 years. All the swimmers are professionals who wake up early to exercise before their workday begins.

The swim sessions begin with a 10-minute warm-up at the individual’s choice of stroke and pace. Love puts together sets, combining a particular number of laps at a specified level of effort and short rest.

“He’s never given us the same workout twice,” Kling said.

Many triathletes seek out the class because they need to improve their swimming. If they haven’t mastered the breathing technique, the swim portion can wear them out. Kathryn Dunaway, a novice swimmer at 32, reduced her time in a recent triathlon by more than a minute in the swim event and seven minutes overall thanks to the coaching.

“Being in shape for swimming is different from normal fitness,” Love said. “Runners can’t understand why they are exhausted after two laps.”

Varying the effort levels in interval swimming allows all the cardiovascular zones to be covered and improves fitness, Love said.

Love creates a social experience as well. Sometimes he’ll read the swimmers’ horoscopes.

Participants are as sociable as it is possible to be at 5:30 in the morning, said Jeff Yellin, 30, formerly captain of Princeton University’s varsity team. Love was Newman’s coach back when Yellin swam for the high school team.

Love creates different drills to make the sessions interesting. He will say, use a “golf mentality” to cross the pool with the least number of strokes. The class might focus on kicking or “harmonics” — undulating through the water like a dolphin. Love might ask them to swim silently with the least possible drag. He sometimes videotapes their strokes to help them improve.

“When you finish swimming for 20 minutes to an hour, you feel your very best,” Love said. “Swimming improves the suppleness of your body and clarity of your mind.”

Tufton agrees: “I’m much more relaxed and energetic and ready to start the day.”

Kling is most aware of the health benefits. His job is diagnosing patients with breathing problems, including cystic fibrosis.

“People who exercise do the best,” he said about his health care recommend-ations.

The biggest benefit of exercise is cardiovascular, but patients also sleep better and experience overall health benefits with increased blood flowing to the brain and heart, said Kling, whose own lung capacity is 120 percent for his age group.

In high school, Vetter could swim the 100-yard freestyle in 54 seconds. Forty years later, he hopes to swim the same distance in 57 seconds — meaning he must shave off three seconds from his current rate of speed. Achieving that goal could require six months of training, he said.

Though these adult swimmers have attained some measure of perfection, they’ve also learned improvement is always attainable.

“Any athlete can get into bad habits,” said Yellin, who is generally acknowledged to set the bar for the group.

Though it seems these amateur athletes should have mastered the strokes after so many laps and years of swimming, Kling compared the finesse of swimming to the artistry of playing piano.

“You can learn one song, but to learn how to play like Bill Evans takes a lifetime.”

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