LA JOLLA — Motivation by curiousity. It's not a concept widely used by coaches training athletes with visions of either national recognition or Olympic fame.
But for one "Sickie," it's working.
Ron (Sickie) Marcikic is the man, sometimes clown, behind the UCSD Masters swimming program.
Marcikic has the task of holding the interest of 325 participants, swimmers who otherwise might stay away. To do so, Marcikic calls on his imagination to motivate.
"I wear a lot of weird clothes," said Marcikic, 39. "A lot of times our swimmers will show up just because they want to see what I'm wearing."
Marcikic's odd outfits include bright shorts, mismatched shoes and funny hats.
UCSD's program is the largest of 24 regional San Diego/Imperial Swim Masters clubs, all of which are governed by United States Masters Swimming. The La Jolla Jewish Community Center and Carlsbad Masters have 115 swimmers each, an Allied Gardens club called "Different Strokes" has 80 and Coronado has 50 members.
There are 1,300 masters swimmers in San Diego, making it the third largest region in the country and in California, the state with the most clubs and members. Northern California is first with 6,557 swimmers, and the Los Angeles/Orange County/Santa Barbara region is second with 2,356 members.
Many of these swimmers are like Larry Hill, 50, a computer programmer for the San Diego Unified School District. He returned to swimming in Marcikic's program eight years ago after a layoff of 20 years.
"Sickie provides a lot of variety," he said. "If I don't come, I feel like I'm missing out. I'm a better swimmer now than I was in high school and college."
Camille Thompson, a member of the U.S. 1976 Olympic swim team in Montreal, has been with the program for two years.
"The coaches are great," she said. "Sickie makes it fun. He does crazy things. There's always something going on to keep people interested."
In a sport in which it becomes increasingly tiresome to stare at a painted line at the bottom of the pool, lap after lap, Marcikic dreams up wild workouts to arouse interest.
"I make up strange sets for them," he said. "I'll make them swim on their backs, feet first, going backwards, all sorts of different things. You treat them like kids but are able to talk to them like adults. The bottom line here is fun."
Marcikic also has staged some unconventional dry-land activities.
Last year, he staged such a bizarre golf tournament--players were required to hit the ball with a baseball bat on one hole and with a pool cue on another--that the group was told not to come back to the course. And this summer, the group will hold its first bowling tournament, at an unsuspecting alley to be named later.
But to portray the program as a pool of games is unfair.
Of the athletes enrolled in UCSD's program, Marcikic said approximately half are serious triathletes or swimmers in training.
"It's definitely a well-organized workout," Marcikic said. "And it's not easy. When you're training as many as 80 to 100 people in the water in one workout, you don't want to hurt the people who are serious. But you don't want to burn out the ones who are there for fun either."
In fact, Marcikic hired Jeff Milton four years ago to work with more serious swimmers such as triathletes Scott Tinley, Mark Allen and Julie Moss and multiple masters world-record holders Barbara Dunbar and Betsy Jordan. Milton, 33, also is swimming coach at University City High School.
The less-serious participants swim to stay in shape, to feel good about themselves and to escape, for 1 1/2 hours a day, the grind of high-stress jobs.
Milton said: "They love to be told what to do. They have to be told to get off the wall just like high school kids. And they have to do a 50 butterfly on their birthday no matter who they are."
In a pool, a doctor and a doorman are indistinguishable.
"We have a number of professors, doctors, lawyers, many well-respected people in the community," Marcikic said. "But once they're on deck, in their Speedos, you don't recognize them. They're just as crazy as anyone, and they're looking for the same results. That's the best part."
Matthew Belshin, 29, is a former competitive swimmer turned retail developer for Trammell Crow Company. Belshin said he relies on swimming to keep his sanity, and he likes the absence of a hierarchy in the program.
"I really don't know what a lot of the people do," he said. "In the pool, everyone's the same. This is a time to escape work. People don't talk about it much."
County Superior Court Judge Tony Joseph, 52, has been swimming under Marcikic for two years. In a masters meet in La Jolla in April, he won the men's 50-54 500-yard freestyle. He says swimming is a great way to escape the pressures of the courtroom.
"It's good to have something you do that is completely separate from law," Joseph said. "It's easier to stay awake all day if you start out doing this."