Wave riders

open-water swimming has a Zen-like quality that turns pool swimmers into converts
June mather, left, David heller, and Pam Downs head out for open water during a mile or more swim at Emigrant Lake in Ashland. 6/19/10 Denise Barattaphotos by Denise Baratta

From 50-yard sprints in every stroke to the mile-long freestyle, Todd Lantry has tested himself against the gamut of competitive events in 25 years of swimming.

"I was kind of a utility swimmer," says Lantry, 34, of his childhood days in age-group swimming. "They just make you do everything."

Rogue Valley Masters is an organization of about 20 swimmers focused on fitness.

The club works out at 5:45 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Southern Oregon University's pool. Sunday workouts are held 8:30 to 10 a.m. at SOU. In summer through mid-August, some members practice at Emigrant Lake's Songer Wayside near the lake's southern end. As the days shorten in late summer, start time usually is moved to 6 a.m. Weekend practices are announced throughout the season.

Dues are $30 per month. An additional $40 yearly fee is required to join Oregon/U.S. Masters Swimming, which insures members and allows them to enter competitions. Newcomers are granted a two-week, free trial period. Swimmers also can pay a drop-in fee of $5.

For more information, e-mail roguevalleymasters@yahoo.com or call Todd Lantry at 541-482-1047.

A separate group of about a half-dozen swimmers, called Southern Oregon Masters, meets from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the Rogue Valley Family YMCA in Medford. For more information, call Doug Stewart at 541-899-9089.

Masters swimming is open to anyone 18 or older. See the website www.swimoregon.org

Lantry jumped into Rogue Valley Masters after collegiate swimming but was loathe to leave the pool for untested waters at Emigrant Lake. Once he warmed to plying the cold depths at sunrise, Lantry set a new course in his otherwise steadfast sport.

"It's a very different animal from being in the pool," says Lantry, now RVM president. "The people who do open-water swimming are always jonesing for it."

Open-water withdrawal has been more painful this year, with cool early-summer weather that kept most local lake temperatures below 70 degrees throughout June. Donning wet suits, RVM members finally took to Emigrant in mid-June, some in preparation for the summer swim season's main event, Open-Water Weekend at Applegate Lake.

"It's one of the premier kind of open-water venues in Oregon," says Nate Sanford, RVM's race director. "People come from Bend and Portland and all over."

This year's 24th annual event packed the state-championship one-mile swim, a five-kilometer race and a new 10-kilometer race into two days — July 17 and 18. It's been about a decade since any Oregon Masters group hosted a 10K, initiated at the suggestion of the Central Oregon club whose Cascade Lakes Swim Series, scheduled for the last weekend of July at Elk Lake, isn't as hospitable to such long distances, says Lantry.

"It's getting to be one of those kinds of things like the marathon," he says of swimming 10K.

With a consistent water level, mid-July water temperatures in the 70s and restrictions on motorized use, Applegate Lake was deemed the perfect venue. Masters have tried racing at Hyatt, Howard Prairie, Emigrant and even remote Squaw Lake, but Applegate remains the obvious choice, says Lantry. About 50 people were expected to attend this year's event.

"The water's clear; the boat traffic's limited to 10 mph."

Lantry credits Applegate with "hooking" him on open-water swimming in 2003. He's since traveled four times to Hawaii for open-water events, swimming the Maui channel through whitecaps. And instead of tagging along at RVM's 5:30 a.m. practices, he now organizes a half-dozen swimmers who do a route from Emigrant's Songer Wayside along the Ashland reservoir's shoreline to the point of Songer Butte, about a two-mile round trip.

"It's a different kind of workout," says Lantry. "It's very liberating."

Whereas a pool compels interval training and drilling to develop technique, a wall-less expanse of water demands endurance. Open-water swimmers kick less and use their arms more to conserve energy, says Sanford. The distance, Lantry admits, can be daunting at first, but swimmers quickly come to realize that if they just keep going straight, they'll eventually reach the opposite shore.

"There really is more of a Zen to it," says Sanford, 40. "It's more of a pure experience ... You're closer to nature."

Unlike RVM's regular practices at Southern Oregon University, there's no one on land to coach or monitor the group. Swimmers stay close together and look out for each other, says Sanford, but open-water swimming is not suggested for novices. While competition isn't the goal for most open-water enthusiasts, all with RVM have a background in swimming, says Lantry.

"You have to know how to swim within your limit."

One limit that can be difficult to gauge is the body's tolerance to cold. So most Masters start the season wearing full-length wet suits, sometimes switching to "shorties" when the water reaches 70 degrees. Wet suits generally aren't allowed at Masters-sanctioned races but can be indispensable during practice.

"The wet suit offers a lot of buoyancy, so you can actually swim a little longer than you would otherwise," says Lantry.

As the water warms, lake levels usually drop and visibility declines. Such changeability attracts some swimmers to open water but can challenge newcomers, says Lantry.

"That's the thing about open-water swimming ... navigation is pretty important," he says. "It's different every time."

Fitness swimmers yearning to break away from repetitive laps usually achieve a higher plane in open water, says Lantry. And testing themselves against the elements, he adds, hones a mental edge missing in the perimeter of a pool.

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