Who should join Masters?
OK folks, soapbox time. (Those who know me feel free to begin rolling your eyes.)
At various times in various discussion groups I have noticed that a number of people who are new to swimming have a mistaken assumption about U.S. Masters. To wit, they believe one has to already be pretty proficient at swimming before one can join a team and participate in its workouts, or participate in stroke clinics, or basically do anything that would help move past that awkward feeling beginner stage. Several people have tried to gently dispell this misunderstanding.
Let me shout this from the rooftops: YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH, FAST ENOUGH, AND COMPLETELY WORTHY TO JOIN USMS JUST THE WAY YOU ARE!
USMS is about anyone who wants to improve their swimming and enjoy the fellowship of like minded people, period. Any swimmer, regardless of ability, can have a goal, and no one's goal is more or less worthy because it is faster or slower than someone else's. We have some people in USMS who's speed and power in the water are almost beyond comprehension. But, there is no inherent significance in one of their world record swims. All significance is assigned by people. Your goal is just as important to you, and just as worthy.
Let's talk about the medium of water for a minute. At top speeds, it is much less forgiving than air, much more dense and resistant. However, for less intense exercise, it is much more forgiving. Your natural buoyancy will hold you up, or at minimum drastically reduce the weight you have to support against the effects of gravity. Moreover, water is a much more efficient medium for dissipating excess body heat. If you have some kind of physical problem, you really ought to be getting your exercise in the water because you can do it better, longer, and with less risk of injury than on land.
Now, let's talk about who can benefit most from swimming with a coach or a group. For all you triathletes out there (I know I pound on you guys a lot, but I really do admire your willingness to take on a completely foreign sport) let me use an analogy to bicycling. When you were a kid just learning how to ride a bike, did you do a lot of conditioning for your legs, maybe some jogging or lifting weights, before you jumped on the bike for the first time, because you wanted to be sure you were in good enough shape to bike a half mile that first time? Heck no! That isn't how people learn to ride a bike! So why would you think that you have to be able to do something like swim 500 yards without stopping before you can get coaching or join a team? The easiest and fastest progress you will make is refining your stroke technique so that you can swim at a sustainable pace (like easy walking) and go as far as you like. So get your instruction right away, conditioning can come later. And, a Masters team can be one of the best places to get your coaching.
On a similar topic, a number of former swimmers think they have to get themselves in shape before they start working out with a team. "So I don't embarass myself." Why?! These people don't know you and don't know how fast you were ____ years ago. Why would you want to deny yourself the fellowship and the variety of working out with a group? (In the final analysis, the greatest enemy to regular exercise is not age, or busy schedules, or injury, or lack of athletic ability; it's boredom.) So start out in a slower lane, and amaze everyone by how fast you move up!
Let me offer a few tips for picking the right team for you. Please do not interpret this to mean "I am not worthy." Look at this as a method for directing trafffic. For most Masters teams, you will have a difficult time if you cannot swim one length of the pool without stopping. Does that mean you need to suffer on your own? Of course not! Find yourself some good coaching to improve your technique. Conditioning can look after itself; let's get those training wheels off your bike. You may also find that you will benefit most from finding a coach who works with competitive or Masters swimmers, rather than starting with a rinky-dink learn to swim class. Best to learn good mechanics right away, rather than the australian crawl circa 1950.
When you want to find a team, understand that all teams are different. You should try several until you find the one that is most comfortable, and makes you want to come to practice. Understand that some teams have different levels of participation based in part on ability, and in some high Masters density areas, some teams even have strict ability and minimum participation requirements. That's cool. It is not about who is more worthy; it's about directing traffic.
Swimming can be a challenging and frustrating sport. It certainly allows less interaction with other people than most other sports. There is no need to turn it into a solitary sport. Find your group of swimming mates ASAP, and treasure them like gold. They will keep you far younger than you ever imagined possible!