The Life Aquatic

By JoAnn Guidry • Photos By John Jernigan

Don’t let the word ‘masters’ fool you. The Central Florida Marlins Masters Swim Club is anything but a group of older folks sitting around in deck chairs, sipping pina coladas, and occasionally taking a leisurely dip in the pool to cool off.

Instead, it is a group of people (19 and older) who take their swimming very seriously, some to the point of competing. But for most, whether a 6am or 6pm training session in the pool, it’s the best part of the day.

Currently headquartered at the Newton A. Perry Aquatic Center on the Central Florida Community College campus, the Marlins Masters Swim Club is nearing its third year of its most recent reincarnation. Heading the program is Bill Vargo, director of the Perry Aquatic Center and head swim coach of the Central Florida Marlins.

“Over the years, the masters program has come and gone,” says Vargo. “A couple of years ago, there seemed to be a renewed community interest in it and the timing seemed right. We have been very pleased with the response.”

Vargo, whose athletic life has been anchored in swimming as both a competitor and a coach, seems to be the perfect fit to head the masters program. He attended the University of South Florida on a swimming scholarship, earning a Bachelor’s degree in marketing and a Master’s in education. Vargo was the CFCC aquatics program director and head coach of the Florida Marlins Swim Team from 1982 until 2003. When the college eliminated its aquatics program in 2003, Vargo remained as the Marlins coach and became the Perry Aquatic Center’s director. He has also been the head swim coach for the Forest High School team since 1982.

“We basically have three groups of people interested in the Masters Swim Club,” explains Vargo. “There are the serious swimmers who still want to compete, triathletes who need to work on their swimming, and those interested in maintaining their health. We have a good mix of all three, but probably the largest group is the health-conscious group.”

Vargo, as well as coaches Kevin Connell and Tarn Thompson, can provide a tailor-made program to meet each individual’s needs.

“We figure out the best workout program to help them achieve whatever it is they want from swimming,” says Vargo. “We can focus on things like stroke development to speed and stamina to general fitness. It all just depends on what the individual wants.”

Masters Swim Club members have year-round access to the heated Olympic-sized pool at various times of the day, Monday through Saturday. There is always a coach available on-deck throughout the day.

“It’s a great community program,” says Vargo. “In addition to the overall health benefits, it’s a terrific way to socialize and be part of a team.”

The Masters Swim Club is currently 30-odd members strong and growing. Recently, Ocala Style visited with a few members of the club to gain some insight into their chosen sport of swimming.

Tom Koenig, 73

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to swim. It just so happens that Tom Koenig is and he’s been swimming competitively practically all of his life. The native of Erie, Pennsylvania was on his high school and University of Pittsburgh swim teams. After a hiatus from the sport, he returned to it in his early 40s and has been active ever since.

“I became involved in competitive masters swimming while living in Raleigh,” says Koenig, a retired aerospace engineer. “When my wife, Arlene, and I moved to Ocala some 17 years ago, the first thing I did was find a masters team.”

Koenig logs his training at 6 to 7am, three to four times a week, saying, “You have to swim your miles if you’re going to compete.” He generally participates in 10 masters meets a year and has been a national champion 10 times. Competing in the 70-74 age bracket, his specialty is the butterfly breast stroke at the distances of 50, 100, and 200 yards. Koenig is looking forward to going to Stanford University to compete in the 2006 International Masters Meet. At the 1992 International Meet, Koenig scored two first-place finishes.

“Swimming is great for your health,” says Koenig, who for the past three years has worked as a tutor at the Marion County School Board’s truancy office. “Having a community master’s swim team is great. The coaches are the best and everyone on the team enjoys the camaraderie.”

Red Bailey, 75

Serious swimming was a later in life proposition for Red Bailey.

“At the time, I was 58 and was working out in a gym, mostly riding a stationary bike,” he recalls. “A trainer there suggested that I think about giving swimming a try. I did and the first time I couldn’t even swim halfway across the pool.”

That didn’t deter Bailey, who was the patient accounting director for 20 years at Munroe Regional Hospital before retiring in 1998. He kept at it and by the time he turned 59, he was swimming in a masters program.

“I was pretty serious about it for about 10 years,” he says. “I competed in masters meets until my 68th birthday. Now I swim for my health.”

Bailey swims at the Perry Aquatic Center twice a week in the evening from 7 to 8pm. And lest you think that Bailey now takes it easy, he swims a program set up by Coach Kevin Connell.

“I generally swim 1,000-1,200 yards every session,” he says. “I’m still serious about staying fit.”

In addition to swimming, Bailey works out twice a week with weights at the gym and plays golf whenever he can.

“It’s very important to stay active,” he says. “That’s the key to a good life.”

Mary Anne Denes, 49

Swimming was the means to an end for Mary Anne Denes, who began competing in triathlons eight years ago.

“When I started, I couldn’t swim the length of the pool,” she says. “But now I’m very comfortable in the water. Because there are so many people in the water at the same time in a triathlon, it’s very important to relax and get good position. Training with the Masters Club has helped me do that.”

Denes schedules Monday and Wednesday noon swimming sessions into her overall workout regime, which also includes running and biking.

“Coach Vargo designed a great swimming program for me,” she says. “It keeps me consistent and in great shape for the triathlons that I compete in.”

To supplement her pool swimming, Denes and a group of triathletes meet on Thursday evenings to swim against the current in the Rainbow River.

“As much as I enjoy my pool time, swimming in the river is great and I think it’s something everyone should try,” she says.

Competing in the 45-49 age group in triathlons, Denes is quite accomplished and was named a Florida All-American Triathlete this past season. She generally competes in three major spring triathlons.

Denes, an avid horseback rider, also raises Thoroughbred racehorses with her husband, Paul, at their Sidehill Farms in Ocala. And unlike most people who dread another birthday, Denes is looking forward to turning 50.

“I still plan to be competing and winning.”

Pam Breza, 61

As a member of the famous San Francisco Marionettes, Pam Breza was on the synchronized swimming team’s national championship squad from 1962-65. In 1965, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. Among that first class to be inducted with Breza were such swimming notables as Johnny Weismueller and Buster Crabb.

“Swimming has always been part of my life,” says Breza, who with non-swimmer husband Edward moved to Ocala in 2000. “I started masters swimming while we were living in North Carolina and one of the first things I did when we moved here was to find a masters program. And it’s a great one.”

Breza points out that Coach Vargo “is not impressed by my Hall of Fame status and doesn’t let me take it easy.” Not that she would — Breza freely admits that she is “still, unfortunately, very competitive.”

“But I’m a team player, too,” she adds. “I can do all four strokes fairly well, so I let Coach Vargo decide where he needs me on the team when we go to competitions.”

Breza trains four days a week at noontime and is accompanied by Jimmy, a Labrador retriever/standard poodle cross being trained as a guide dog.

“He loves to come to the pool with me,” she says. “It’s a great place to socialize him. Everyone at the pool is just great.”

Jude Hagin, 58

While picking up her daughter, Jamie, from Marlins swimming practice, Jude Hagin envied the fit adults she saw coming and going from the aquatic center.

“I’d be sitting in the car, napping while I was waiting for my daughter,” she recalls. “All these really fit people would walk by and I wondered how they got that way. That’s when Coach Vargo, who coached my daughter, told me about the Masters Club and urged me to give it a try.”

Hagin was hardly as sedentary as she portrays herself. She had been an avid runner for many years until a serious calf muscle injury.

“When I couldn’t run anymore, it was just awful,” she remembers. “But I just never thought I’d find another sport that I enjoyed as much.”

Tentatively, Hagin began coming to the pool earlier this year.

“The first time I came to the pool was the coldest night in February,” she says. “And I came at night because I didn’t want anyone to see me. I didn’t even tell my husband, Dennis, because I just didn’t know if I’d stick with it.”

But Hagin surprised herself.

“I liked it right away,” she says. “I never thought I would like anything as much as I liked running, but swimming is great and just as addictive.”

While Hagin doesn’t compete because she is a self-described “sore loser,” she is serious about her swimming workouts. Depending on her hectic schedule as the executive director of the Ocala Film Commission, she tries to swim on a regular basis at noon or in the evenings.

“At noon, Coach Vargo usually makes me work pretty hard,” she says. “In the evenings, it’s more just getting in the laps. But the important thing is getting in the pool and putting in the time.”

Cara Fitzgerald, 38

Two years ago, Cara Fitzgerald knew she needed to do something about improving her health.

“I was overweight and out of shape,” says the part-owner of Integrity Home Health. “Here I was in the health business, both my husband Dwight and my son Todd are triathletes, and I was not healthy.”

Knowing running didn’t interest her at the time, her husband suggested the masters swim team. While initially embarrassed that she couldn’t even swim halfway across the pool, Fitzgerald decided to stick with it.

“Right from the beginning everyone made me feel welcome,” she says. “I think that’s what made me keep coming back.”

Six months later, Fitzgerald was easily swimming 1,500 yards a session. Now in addition to her 6am workouts on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturdays, Fitzgerald swims in the Rainbow River on Thursdays and Sundays. This past May, she competed in a half-triathlon and took first place in the Athena division, age 40 and under. Fitzgerald swam half a mile, ran 3.1 miles, and biked 13 miles.

“Swimming gave me such confidence,” says Fitzgerald, who has lost 48 pounds in the two years since she joined the Masters Club. “Coach Vargo and everyone on the team were so encouraging. I couldn’t have come as far as I’ve come without the masters program.”

Miriam Mitchum, 50 & Scott Mitchum, 48

Having swam competitively as a youngster on the Ocala Swim Team, Miriam Mitchum calls swimming something she just couldn’t do without.

“I did get away from it for a little bit,” she says, “but then I started back when I was 24. I haven’t stopped since.”

Her husband, Scott, is a latecomer to the sport, having just started masters swimming three years ago. Now it’s something the couple does together three to four times a week at noon.

“It’s great fun and great exercise for us,” says Miriam. “And actually Scott is a great natural swimmer. We’re both built for it — he’s 6-5 and I’m six feet tall.”

The couple doesn’t compete, but they do have coached workouts of a mile and a half during their sessions.

“The benefits of swimming are enormous,” says Miriam. “And when I see the older swimmers in their 70s and 80s, I’m so inspired by them. It’s so important to just keep moving, no matter what age we are.”

Central Florida Marlins Masters Club
Newton A. Perry Aquatics Center/CFCC Campus

Practice Days & Times
M-W-F (6:00-7:00am)
Monday through Thursday (12:00-1:00pm & 6:45pm-7:45pm)
Saturday (7:30-8:30am)

Membership Fee: $50 a month (discounts for additional family members and advance payment)

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