Members of the Portland YMCA swim club stay fit and connected in the pool.
On a Wednesday in October, there are six swimmers in each of the four center lanes at the Portland YMCA pool. The men and women stand at the end of the pool and talk briefly before pushing off, one by one. They move in a coordinated wave of curving limbs and twisting torsos, each swimmer just a few breaths behind the next. On the wall, a clock ticks away second by second, marking the time these everyday athletes will be crawling from one end of the pool to another.
It’s a typical lunch break for Mike LePage, a longtime member of the Portland YMCA Swim Club. Although he works in Yarmouth as a realtor, LePage drives to Portland every weekday at noon to spend an hour in the pool with his friends and fellow swimmers. As he stands in four feet of chlorinated blue water, he jokes with the men who share his lane. “We’re the slow lane,” he explains to me with a laugh. “But we’re all going as fast as we can.”
The swim club is a self-governing group with no coach. “We’re a bunch of lawyers, wealth managers, realtors, and doctors—we’re used to negotiating, so it’s easy for us to decide on an exercise,” adds Todd Larlee. “We know how to get what we want.”
That’s something they all have in common: a desire to get a workout in the pool, without overextending their bodies or exhausting themselves. “The goal is to not die. To do it as quickly as we can with the best time without exploding,” LePage jokes.
Today, they’re doing a workout designed by one of the members (a young man with blonde hair and broad shoulders—a true swimmer’s build) that will require 20 minutes of warmup. “Our workout is ever evolving,” LePage says. “We’re trying to get to the point where the whole pool can swim ten 200-yard laps.” They’re currently working to reduce resting time between each send-off. “The lane I’m in is the least ambitious,” LePage admits with a laugh, “although it is highly ambitious for me.”
“Most people I swim with can do three lengths of the pool pretty comfortably at about a minute and almost all of us can go faster than that with some rest,” he says. Although they occasionally practice other strokes, including the challenging butterfly, the YMCA swim club primarily relies on freestyle for their daily laps up and down the lanes.
Like any sport, swimming has its lingo and its language, and most of the Portland YMCA swim club members have been swimming for years. They learned how to keep pace and watch the clock from coaches in high school and college. Many of them even swam together as kids. For example, John Cahill, who recently turned 70, was LePage’s coach at the Portland YMCA Swim Team when he was 14. “He was 24 years old,” LePage remembers. “He had this Southern accent and would give everybody a hard time. But even then, I wanted to swim well for him. He tried to lift us to a higher level, and we boys knew that.”
While the group doesn’t have a designated coach, many of the swimmers have coached swimming or currently work as coaches. Cahill has also coached at the Bath YMCA, the University of Georgia, and at the University of South Carolina. Larlee coaches triathletes in Cape Elizabeth, Dave Bright coaches the Brunswick High School team, and Kirsten Read coaches for the Portland-based all-women athletic group sheJAMs, as well as private clients. “A good teacher or a good coach consistently works to help their students experience success,” says Cahill. “It’s all about having high expectations and the shared accomplishments of everyone involved—coaches and students.”
And that’s not the only way these swimmers are striving to help Mainers reach a higher level. “At the Y, we have a longstanding relationship with the noontime swimmers,” says Helen Breña, CEO of the YMCA of Southern Maine. “A number of them also swim and support our Peaks to Portland event, and I’m very grateful for that.” Peaks to Portland is an annual fundraiser that has taken place in the waters of Casco Bay for over 30 years. Participants, who compete in a lottery just to join the race, swim a 2.4-mile course from Peaks Island to East End Beach. “It’s a great community-builder,” says Breña, “but just as importantly, it raises money to support our youth development programs.”
These programs range from swimming lessons to summer camps. Not only does the Y provide educational and recreation opportunities for underprivileged kids, the organization also helps new Mainers learn basic water safety. “It’s important for our immigrant families to learn how to be safe in the water,” Breña says. “It helps prevent drownings in our community, and it gives kids a real sense of achievement when they learn to swim and can suddenly go out and swim across a pond.”
Adult swimmers feel a similar sense of accomplishment. Swimming is good for your joints and your muscles, sure, but it also provides a break from daily life. Jon Campbell, a 50-year-old swimmer who has been with the group since 1995, says swimming is the “highlight of my day.” From the side of the pool, he looks sleek and calm as he completes his final laps, his arms moving (for one brief moment) in perfect time with the swimmer in the next lane.
Tsveta Stanilova is a native of Bulgaria who joined the swim club just three years ago, but even this relative newcomer feels right at home in the pool. “It clears my head after a stressful day at work,” she says. “And it has given me a group of friends who are very different from my colleagues or family. I have found friends that I will keep for a long time, people I wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for swimming.”
Even LePage, who tends to talk about swimming with a half-smile and a joke ready, says the group has helped pick him up in times of trouble. In 2007, he was battling cancer, and in between rounds of chemotherapy, mustered the willpower to participate in the Peaks to Portland race. Although his teammates gave him some gentle ribbing about his newly bald head, they were incredibly supportive. “I felt defiant,” he says, remembering that part of his life. “You talk to a lot of people when you get cancer, and one piece of advice I kept hearing was to stay as active as possible. And so I kept swimming.”
“I slowed down,” he admits, “but I kept going.”