Two-and-a-half years ago, Lin Tallman hardly knew her butterfly from her breaststroke.
The retired Los Angeles elementary school principal had never considered swimming in a 50-yard pool nor standing on a starting block. She was, in fact, just cooling off in the shallow end of the Newport Beach Tennis Club pool when she was approached by a quietly enthusiastic woman who wanted her to sign up for a 10-minute kick board contest.
Even though she barely finished four laps with a kick board, "one thing led to another," Tallman recalled recently at pool-side. "The next thing you know I'm a Masters Swimmer--and I'm signed up to go swim in Russia!" Tallman, 62, toweled off after her now-routine 36-lap workout in her striped Speedo, goggles snapped around her swim cap. She grinned. "Like my husband says, 'No one says "no" to Betty Garwood.' "
Others unable to resist Garwood's friendly persuasion include several gray-haired swimmers of varied skill who have joined the Newport Beach Masters swim group (a chapter of the U.S. Masters Swimming program) to train regularly and compete in regional "friendship" meets.
They include Orange County Democratic Central Committee Chairman Bruce Sumner, 60; flight attendant Valeska Wolf, 44; Lin and Tab Tallman, and dozens of others who followed Garwood to Russia and Scandinavia to swim in her self-styled international swim meets.
They include the Russians, Finns, Swedes and Danes who have agreed to set up these meets for Garwood's team.
China Trip Next
And now Garwood has won over the Chinese. On June 19, Garwood will lead the Newport Beach Masters Swimmers and assorted acquaintances to China, where they will compete unofficially against the Chinese June 25, 29 and July 3 in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
"These are international firsts," said Garwood, 57, a fourth-grade teacher at Stanley Elementary School in Garden Grove and "international swim chairman" for the Newport Beach Masters--also known as "the Blue Whales."
A lifelong swimmer, Garwood--known to friends as a "compulsive organizer"--was thrilled to find organized swimming seven years ago in the growing movement to involve older athletes in competitive sports. In Masters Swimming (affiliated with the Amateur Athletic Union), swimmers compete in age groups, starting at 25 to 29 and continuing into the 90s.
While some have been world-class swimmers, there are no time trials, no qualifying heats, and everyone--no matter how slow--gets to swim. Masters swimmers say an unusual side effect of joining the program is that they start to look forward to birthdays--particularly those that push them into the next category, where they will gain a competitive edge.
If nobody in your age group shows up, you automatically win. "That's how I got most of my medals," laughed Garwood, who doesn't keep track of her own times. In the Hawaiian relays (a meet in which swimmers time themselves in their own pools and mail in the results), Garwood said, "Four of us grandmothers came in first in the world."
Last April, the U.S. Masters Swimming organization held its first official international competition in New Zealand. Another international meet is scheduled next year in Tokyo.
But Garwood decided to arrange her own international competition since she and others could get vacations only in the summer and needed time to raise travel money. Sumner recalled that qualifications for Garwood's 1982 trip to Russia were simply: "Do you want to go? Do you have the time? Can you pay your own way?"
Garwood had had experience directing foreign tours of sorts. Named elementary school "Teacher of the Year" in 1980 by the county Department of Education, Garwood makes a practice of rewarding her most motivated and responsible students with a personally guided tour to the summer Olympics. But her students stayed home in 1980, when the United States boycotted the Moscow Games. Garwood went anyway with a group from Swimming World Magazine and, she said, found the grown-ups as much fun as her students. In addition, the Russians they met that year "treated us beautifully," she said.
"I told them then, 'I'm coming back.' I said, 'A bunch of us grandmas will come and swim with your grandmas. What do you think?' They said, 'Great.' "
Working through the Russian Travel Bureau in New York, a swim coach was contacted in Pyatigorsk, a village north of the Caucasus Mountains. While there is no organized Masters Swimming in Russia, the coach had rounded up about 30 swimmers over age 25 for the meet.
The meet took place in an indoor pool in Pyatigorsk. During the first race, Garwood recalled, spectators lined the balcony. "There were no smiles. They thought we were serious, out to get the Russians. . . .
"We immediately started cheering for the Russians. It only took a couple of events, and they were cheering for us, too," she said.