With six Olympians, 22 NCAA championships, and 66 NESCAC titles to its name, Bowdoin’s athletics department certainly has a well-stocked trophy cabinet. However, many at the college don’t know that some of the most decorated athletes on campus aren’t even Bowdoin students.
LeRoy Greason Pool is home to one of the nation’s most historically successful Masters swim clubs, and the only one in Maine. A Masters swimmer is an athlete over the age of 18 who competes in sanctioned U.S. Masters events, but the majority of Masters swimmers who compete are well above that age, often into their fifties and beyond. Three days a week from noon to 1 p.m., a faithful contingent of swimmers, most over the age of 40, train as a part of the Maine Masters Swim Club. The club is a member club of U.S. Masters Swimming, the umbrella organization that controls all Masters swim clubs across the country.
“Here at Bowdoin, we have three workouts a week. One is usually a distance workout coached by Dave Bright, [head swim coach of Brunswick High School]. [The other two] are usually coached by … [former Director of Parent Giving] Pamela Torrey or [Bowdoin swim coach] Brad Burnham,” said Professor of Physics Dale Syphers, a member of the club.
Masters swim clubs attract a diverse range of athletes, many of whom have had a background swimming at either a high school or collegiate level. Syphers, who is on sabbatical this year, is an active member of the Maine Masters. After swimming for Division I UMass-Amherst for a year as an undergraduate, Syphers quit the sport to pursue his study of physics and picked up basketball as a hobby instead. But after 25 years of basketball, Syphers decided to get back into swimming as a means to prevent possible injury from basketball’s high-impact mechanics.
“I really didn’t expect much personally when I came back to Masters swimming,” said Syphers. “I was stunned within six months to see how fast I could be! That was … the thing that surprised me when I got back. You know, I was thinking, ‘Am I going to have no pacing?’ And the answer is, it didn’t go away. It was there the whole time.”
However, not all club members are former Division I athletes or state champions. Jim Brokaw, a Brunswick resident, first started coming to Masters practices after noticing the group in the pool on weekdays while he was seeking a new form of exercise.
“No, [I did not have any former experience]. My nickname for myself is Mr. Ed, because I swim like a horse. I have a lot of muscle—I’m real lean. Balance and the streamline position are real challenges for me,” said Brokaw.
In many ways, the club’s structure is the greatest triumph of Maine Masters. It caters to both former collegiate All-Americans as well as casual swimmers looking to get a quick workout in over their lunch break. That being said, the core group of the Maine chapter is the same group of dedicated swimmers who compete in almost all of the year’s competitive meets.
“There is a residual hardcore [group] of people who were here when I started,” said Brokaw. “They’re still here, and that might be 50 percent of the club.”
“So it’s two different things,” said Syphers. “There’s the sort of Masters swimming to either enjoy healthy swimming or to get faster, and then there’s the [kind of] affiliation with the club where you show up at the big meets of the year.”
For Syphers and his fellow competitively inclined athletes, these big meets are the marquee events of the Masters season. The New England region in particular enjoys some of the country’s largest and best-run meets, which rival national championship meets in terms of their organization.
There are plenty of chances for Maine Masters swimmers to set regional, national or even world records. For example, Syphers is currently six months into a two-year training regimen to prepare him for the 2021 Masters World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. He will be entering the competition just after turning 65, placing him at the low end of the 65-69 age bracket. This gives him high hopes for the meet.
Maine Masters itself has a history of success, despite being in a relatively small state.
“There was a period where we were one of the 800-pound gorillas,” said Syphers.
For instance, Syphers himself holds an eight-year New England record in the 4×50 freestyle relay. In the past few years, Maine Masters has been the home for a number of elite athletes, including Torrey, a former All-American swimmer at Princeton who has set numerous regional records and was a consistent top-10 national performer for the Masters.
According to Syphers, although some club members were even close to making the Olympic team, the thrill of racing for the first time in years after a long hiatus can be intimidating.
“A lot of people don’t swim when they have children and so forth … it’s just too complicated,” said Syphers. “And one of the biggest surprises that I’ve heard from everybody who came back to swimming was that the first time they got back onto a block when getting back into swimming in their fifties or something, [they got] butterflies!”
Recently, the club has been making an effort to attract more athletes with limited swimming background—not at the expense of success on the national or international stage, but by balancing a competitive atmosphere with one where more casual athletes can also thrive.
“There are a lot of people who [swim for the club] and just want to see, ‘am I making progress?’ They’re not worried or don’t care if there’s not much there in terms of competition,” said Syphers. “And that’s okay! We take all comers. All Masters swimming [clubs are] starting to reinvigorate one of the original reasons for starting Masters swimming, which was to educate and teach people to swim and get more people swimming. There’s a little more of a push from all Masters organizations to make sure they’re all open and welcoming and trying to get everyone onboard who would be interested, not just fast people.”
“It’s one of the great things that Bowdoin has to offer,” said Brokaw.