08/20/2014 11:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Swimming With the Old Goats

On Sunday I got to swim with our lovingly-deemed Old Goats, a cabal of longtime members, holders of wisdom and, of course, swimmers of some renown, as part of the A Team in the Walt Schneebeli Over 60 Swim at San Francisco's Aquatic Park. On Monday morning I got to be part of celebrating the last row (from our Park to AT&T Park) of summer 2014 for our youngest rowers, each of whom crew during the school year but have joined us on the open water the past two summers. These are just two of the communities alive and in play at the Dolphin Club, and I write today to encourage you to revel in the joy of the communities around you, by sharing a little bit of my Sunday with the Old Goats.

I am a newcomer to the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club. I've been the boat captain, I am the president, but I know full well that I am a newcomer. I didn't know the Walt Schneebeli of yore. I only know him over the past few years, and that more by the change in the room when he walks in, generally now with cane, than from any extended conversations with him. He doesn't talk much, but there's a different level of interest, a higher regard, a greater need to be respect-worthy when Walt's in the room or beside you in the Bay. The first time I went into the Bay for a swim, I walked almost immediately right back out. Walt, Bob, Charlie and friends were sitting in the glassed in alcove on the Club deck, and Walt called me over. "How'd it go?" Bob asked. I told them I thought my organs were all going to explode and while it seemed to be a good thing for them to do, I was thinking I didn't have their gumption, to get in and stay in. "Would you mind a little advice?" Charlie asked. Glad to take it, I said, and they introduced me to the idea of thermal caps and ear plugs, which did make a difference. (On a subsequent swim, thermal cap proudly worn, the women in the sauna did the "would you mind a little advice?" Turns out I was, in having the thermal cap on top, wearing it incorrectly. "What you're doing is a little like wearing a sweater over your raincoat, dear...")

How can I tell the tale of walking into the water with these guys? Slowly, oh-so-slowly would be best... It was my first swim with a number on my arm (13); there were 50 people on the beach. We were divided into three groups -- the six of us, them all in their 80s, a couple dozen in the half mile group and the rest going the full mile. We were up first, the official time guys were doing the countdown from the dock, there were little green and white pennant flags flying, and my five guys were still talking through their strategy, through exactly what to aim at in our (short) course. "Aim at the paddlewheel." "What paddlewheel?" "I can't see the paddlewheel." "You know that's not a real paddlewheel." "The Thayer?" I thought we were going for Eppleton Hall." "Ah, just get in the water and swim." "Aim at the swimmer in front of you." "No way, I'm going to be in front." "I don't want you swimming in front of me." On and on, easing slowly into the Bay... no rush. No sense of the crowds or the days behind, only thinking about the swim ahead. To stop laughing above water, I dove under, but the joke was on me -- I forgot to pull my goggles on and I was snorting saltwater from laughing AND had to get my goggles on while swimming... Walt, to his credit, was all about the swimming. John was next to him, keeping him on a relatively straight (and ultimately winning) course. The rest of the gang, herded by Victor (a very big guy on a very small kayak), kept up a constant line of banter. "Bob, what's with your elbows? Don't run into anything. You'll hurt yourself. Or it." "John, who's cooking dinner?" "Where are we?" On and on.

What joy and what honor to be in the midst of these guys, a net of caring in a small pocket of San Francisco Bay. "Charlie, are you headed back for the dock?" Victor asked one seemingly- errant swimmer, who was on his back, heading rapidly under the next pier. "Eventually". And yes, eventually, we did all make it back. And so did the rest of the day's swimmers, each of us with a particular combination of pride in the swim and joy in the company.


Photo credit: Vance Jacobs