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Pacific Masters Annual Celebration and Meeting

St. Mary's College, Moraga, Ca.

November 17, 2019

swim practiceGetting up at 5 AM on a Sunday morning is only worth it-- if you get to swim. The Annual meeting of the Pacific Masters, held at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, provided that opportunity and so much more.

The program began with two exercise choices: a swim practice conducted by Stu and Mary Kahn and a dry land exercise class led by Chris Chorak. Divided into two groups, the sessions were held to manageable numbers.

In the pool, the atmosphere was friendly and the lane order sorted itself out quite readily. The water temperature was just right as swimmers were led through a series of drills as a warm-up. Someone said something about sprints being on the agenda, which caused a rumble of disapproval throughout the group. But then, consoling words followed: “No longer than a 75.”

Sure enough, building a 75 started the first set, followed by a pair of 50s and some hard 25s. Repeat, but add more 25s with each repetition. There was plenty of rest as each lane waited for the last swimmer to finish. However, we all felt the exertion. Mary said it was good that we were tired. It meant she was doing her job.

dry landIn the gym, our favorite PT, Chris Chorak, was back again this year to help us swimmers through strength and core building exercises. She concentrated on the neck muscles, demonstrating how to mitigate stress by transferring the effort to our larger core muscles. She’s a swimmer herself and understands what works specifically for us. Normally, she does not name her exercises, but feel free to ask her about the “naughty kitty” pose any time!

Not only were we all awake and refreshed from our exercise and swim, but we were also hungry. Annette Coholan singlehandedly (!) set up an amazing array of bagels, spreads, oranges as well as orange juice and the obligatory morning coffee and tea. What a welcome sight! Everything tasted extra delicious after the workout. Thank you, Annette.

After our snack, we were ready for this year’s tech talk by Aaron Piersol. The subject was backstroke, which is not surprising as Aaron is described as “a backstroke specialist who is a former world champion and world record-holder. He is a three-time Olympian and seven-time Olympic medalist (five gold, two silver).”

His talk started with an image of himself in an impressive, underwater pose of his dolphin –like streamlined backstroke. The photo was taken in 2005 at the famous Santa Clara Swim Club Aquatics Center by photographer Donald Miralle. The audience saw right away that this man understands the backstroke.

tech talkThe first and simplest piece of advice he gave us was to swim straight. It’s the shortest distance from here to there, and helped him win races against normally faster swimmers. He acknowledged that this is easier said than done, especially in an outdoor pool. Using peripheral vision to keep an eye on the lane lines is helpful. He advised that some goggles help with this and some hinder.

Aaron went on to explain the importance of the kick in backstroke. His legs drive the stroke by propelling him through the water and rotating his body. His arms and torso follow the lead of his strong kick. The backstroke is a dance, a rhythm, legs and arms working efficiently together. And once the rhythm is found, he said, he could backstroke forever. He envisioned an easy 500 backstroke, which brought gasps from the audience.

A fun drill to start learning this technique is called the Vertical Spin, done in the deep end, using only your legs. With a sweeping kick, try to spin around 360 degrees. When you have that mastered (or not), while swimming freestyle, with a sweping kick, spin 180 degrees onto your back. Then, back to freestyle with another 180. Now, put that new skill to work on your back, spinning only 45 degrees, using your legs for the rotation, and you have a strong and efficient backstroke.

A question from the audience brought up his unique backstroke turn. Describing how he takes one less stroke, turning on his front a little earlier, he cautioned the competitive swimming crowd: “Doing this new turn, for the first time at a meet, could very well cause a disqualification.” Aaron was friendly, taking questions and answering them with humility.

lunchIt was now time for lunch. Mud Sharks Maggie Tevis and Don Pierce had set up the tables and decorated them, adding to the festive environment. The caterers did a fantastic job this year, with very enticing choices on the menu. There was a beautiful salad, with an option to add some blue cheese crumbles, lots of delicious vegetables, broccoli robe and green beans. The main course included mushroom risotto, a vegetarian pasta and tasty Chicken Marsala. The dessert options were cheesecake or chocolate cake. There was something for everyone.

Aaron ate lunch with us and then graciously signed autographs and patiently stood for pictures with individuals and teams. He said he felt right at home with us, with one common interest being our love of the water.

lunchCoach Donita Flecker introduced Aaron for his keynote speech. They met when Donita saw him swim and, without knowing who he was, asked if he wanted to join in with their Masters’ team. She bragged that her resume now includes the fact that she coached an Olympian.

He then took the stage and began with his early days, swimming with his family. His grandmother, the mermaid, and his dad, swimmer, surfer and sailor, are in the water every day. His grandma, at 91, still likes to put on her bathing suit, go to the beach and feel the sand under her toes.

Youthful influences for Aaron included Olympian Pablo Morales and a paddle board adventurer named Larry Capune, affectionately known as Lifeguard Larry. In Lifeguard Larry’s memory, Aaron has become so proficient on the paddle board that he thinks nothing of paddling from Newport to Catalina and back. He said if worse came to worse, he can always swim back.

photos with AaronHe spoke of how being in the ocean humbles you, reminding you of your limitations. If you fight the water, the water fights back. The old adage of “never turn your back to the water” is because it wants your attention. Aaron came across as humble, respectful not only of the water, but of the position he finds himself in, as a leader. He speaks from the heart.

Then the subject of the 2004 Olympic Games came up – the infamous Gold Medal 200 backstroke swim. More humility was shown as Aaron described his feelings of overwhelming joy being dashed by the news of his disqualification. In shock, he wasn’t sure of his feelings. All the preparation for this event, the thrill of the swim itself and the temporary victory suddenly taken away, took him on an emotional roller coaster. How should he react? Would he do it all again if he knew this would be the outcome?

Giving himself a few minutes to let it all sink in, he decided that the answer is yes. He would go through it all again because of the journey. All his experiences leading up to that moment made him the man he is today.

Having come to terms with the decision, he was the one consoling his teammates and especially his parents. After an agonizing half an hour, the head official came to Aaron and told him that he had been reinstated and yes, he had indeed won the Gold. More emotions rolled through. The decision had affected more swimmers than just Aaron. He felt sympathy for the poor guy who had been lifted to third place only to be pushed back to fourth, missing out on a medal, when Aaron was reinstated. 

Aaron PeirsolAnyway, what had he done wrong? An audible reaction resonated throughout the audience when he responded, “Do you remember that backstroke flip turn I mentioned earlier-- the one that could be the cause of a DQ?”

It was many years later when Aaron learned the reason for his reinstatement. The DQ citation had not been written in either French or English, the only two languages recognized by the Olympic Committee. Aaron told us that he had won the decision on a technicality. But looking at the video of the swim, Aaron legally and rightfully earned that Gold Medal and the Olympic Record. What an inspirational talk. We thank Aaron for sharing his amazing story with us.

The last item on the agenda for the day was the business of our Pacific Masters. This year sees the completion of two 2-year consecutive terms for the current officers. Before voting on the nominees to take their place, each officer shared a summary report for the year. USMS is in good financial standing and data shows strong turnout for pool meets and open water events. If you are interested in reading the minutes from this meeting, you can access them here when they become available.

In addition to unanimously voting in a new cohort of officers (see election results here), an important order of business was recognizing achievements of individual members of our Pacific Masters. Members were celebrated not only for their individual successes (which were many and impressive), but also for their commitment to swimming and the mission of USMS, pursuing health and fitness through the sport of swimming. Aaron Piersol helped give out the awards, an added bonus for all recipients. For a full listing of all award winners, see this list.

This year’s annual meeting celebrated swimming in many ways. It left attendees energized to take on the backstroke with new vigor and buoyed by connecting with friends old and new. Aaron is the perfect role model for Masters swimmers; he reminded us that it’s the joy of being in the water that matters most. A snapshot from his Tech talk punctuated this: a video clip shows Aaron demonstrating a backstroke kick drill while his mother swims past in the background, doing her daily freestyle laps. With a grandmother and parents who are drawn to the water every day, it was easy for Aaron to join our Pacific Masters swimming family for this celebration. Here’s hoping the New Year brings many more laps in the pool and miles in our lakes, rivers and ocean. Let’s keep swimming!

Written by Linda Hepworth, competitive swimmer, Update editor, and author of The Water Becons, with contributions from Kate Matwychuk. Photos by Rich Burns.

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