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Early birds catch the wave at Temescal pool

on April 12, 2011

It’s 5:15 a.m. on rainy Friday morning in March at the Temescal Pool and lifeguard Alek Kress couldn’t be more elated.  His shift starts at 6:30 a.m. for the lap swimmers, but he likes to arrive early to hang with the team swimmers. He and two swimmers waiting to be let into the facility greet coach Vanessa Lee as she arrives.

“I’m ready to start the day!” said Kress as he helps Lee lift the security gate. More swimmers bundled in hats and coats and swaddled in scarves arrive.  They exchange chipper good mornings as they hustle into the dressing rooms.  Soon men shirtless in swim trunks and ladies in swimsuits and loudly colored swim caps emerge into the 50 degree morning air without flinching.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning a dedicated group of Temescal Aquatic Masters swimmers gather before the sun rises to participate in an organized swim work out that begins at 5:30 a.m. in the six-lane heated outdoor pool.  The swimmers meet year round, rain or shine.

But the morning workout can’t begin until the pool covers are removed. Three club swimmers and Kress tackle the duty.  The triple shafted winder is wheeled over to the southern edge of the pool.  The covers are wide enough to protect two lanes.  Two men fasten the cover edge to the reel.  Then the other two turn the hand cranks swiftly while their partners make sure the cover is feeding properly on to the reel.  When the first cover is done, they move as a well-oiled machine to take care of the remaining two covers.

In the meantime, Lee still in her hat and coat with an umbrella handy, is writing the agenda for the warm up, drills and cool down on the dry erase board. Today the focus is on the backstroke.  She will take the swimmers through a series of backstroke drills with a different focus like a flutter kick or dolphin kick.

The swimmers walk to the pool with arms full of fins, multi-colored swim buoys and paddle boards that get dropped off by the pool side.  One by one they step out of their Crocs or flip-flops and lower themselves into the velvety warmth of the 80 degree pool.

By 5:35 a.m. fourteen swimmers are diligently working on their warm up laps. Lee gave them the option of choosing their own stroke.  The activity in the water causes a thick puffy cloud of steam to waft and curl above the pool. More swimmers walk briskly into the cold and join their teammates. The rain begins to fall in fat droplets that create scores of round ripples on the surface of the pool.

Temescal Aquatic Masters is part of the nation wide network of U.S. Masters Swimmers (USMS) teams.  The non-profit organization for swimmers over age 18 offers competitions, clinics and the opportunity to participate in the structured training and stroke critique that one would get from a swim team practice, but without the pressure to compete.

Among the 120 Temescal team members are a mix of competitors, triathletes, open water swimmers and fitness lap swimmers.  The minimum skill requirement to join a Masters swim team is the ability to complete a few laps in a pool.

“We’re open to all ages and ability levels,” said head coach Karin Hurley, who has been with the Temescal Aquatic Masters team for more than 12 of its 28 years.  “You don’t have to have been a high school or collegiate swimmer.  Most of our swimmers are not competitive.  We encourage it, but we don’t force them.”

The Temescal team divides the swimmers among the six lanes by speed.  Each lane has a mascot so swimmers can classify themselves via animal.  According to Hurley, this is one of the unique ways the Temescal team makes itself friendly to swimmers of all abilities and avoids demoralizing those in the slower lanes.  From fast to intermediate speed, the lane order is: orcas, humpbacks, sharks, otters, dolphins and tortugas.

The weekday morning workouts are just three of nine weekly workouts hosted by the Temescal Aquatic Masters.  Those who are night owls instead of morning birds can come in the evenings or mid weekend mornings.

But for some of the team members there is something special about getting a swim in before you start the day. Katherine Suyeyasu is a middle school English teacher who has swum with the club for four years. She started as a tortuga and is now a shark.

“It keeps me strong for my middle schoolers,” she said.  “I feel completely elated after I swim.”

Suyeyasu came to the Temescal pool as a lap swimmer and was reluctant to join the team because she has never swum competitively.  The lifeguards encouraged her so she gave it a try. “The coaching has really helped me to improve my stroke and it’s nice to be greeted by friends at 5:30 in the morning,” she said.

Sean Yokomizo has been a member of the Temescal Aquatic Masters for five years.  He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and drives in from Moraga to swim with his fellow otters before heading off to his job at a scrap yard near the Oakland Coliseum.

Yokomizo says there are several reasons the program is successful. “It’s fitness, for one,” says Yokomizo.  “It’s a good way to get in shape and keep in shape. Then there’s community.” According to Yokomizo the team does the Temescal pool’s landscaping, performs volunteer work, does fundraisers for Oakland schools and hosts social events like monthly beer nights.

Jane Adams is a webmaster who joined the team a year and a half ago after she hurt her ankle and couldn’t run anymore. A friend had been swimming with the team for years and convinced her to give it a try. Now Adams is very proud to call herself a tortuga although she says adapting to the early hours was tough at first.

“I thought she was crazy, but I was desperate so I tried it,” said Adams.  “She picked me up so that helped.  The key for me when I wake up is to not think about it, to not ask why am I doing this, because that just takes you to a bad place.”

Edy Scripps, a first grade bilingual Spanish teacher and fellow tortuga, lives across the street, so she gets up as late as possible.  She was a lap swimmer before someone on the team convinced her to join. “There is something about swimming [in the morning] that changes the way you feel all day long,” she says. “You feel great all day.”

Coach Vanessa Lee, 24, is an Oakland native who started coaching with the Temescal Masters in October. She leads the Wednesday and Friday morning workouts.  Lee has a degree from UC Berkeley in Spanish linguistics with a minor in education, but has a lifelong background in youth competitive swimming.  She started swimming at the age of 5 and began to compete when she was 7.  Since then she’s taught youth lessons, coached for the Oakland summer rec leagues, coached varsity high school swimmers and coached the Oakland Undercurrents, an aquatic life-skills program for Oakland youth.

Undaunted by the early morning or the cold, Lee is full of energy.  She is quick to flash a vibrant smile and exchange salutations as the swimmers arrive.  She greets everyone by name. “This is kind of a neat experience for me because everyone is grown,” she says with a laugh.  “I can be less strict than with the kids.  They can make their own adjustments or use swim aids if they want.”

By 5:45 a.m. there are 25 swimmers in the pool.  Normally there are more but the rain has kept some at bay.  Lee is done ticking off names on her clipboard and the session commences.

The Temescal Masters focus on one competitive stroke a month.  They cycle through the four strokes in the same order used in an individual medley (IM): butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. April is a freestyle month. Next month they will revisit the butterfly stroke.

“When I coach Wednesday we do our IM focus,” said Lee.  “Fridays tend to be a little bit more freestyle.  I believe Monday [coached by Stevann Jones] is more hypoxic breath control.”

Once the swimmers have their instructions, they take off one at a time, swimming on the right side of the lane to create the organized dance called for by swimmers’ etiquette.

Lee stalks back and forth along the edges of the pool watching the swimmers carefully. When the rain intensifies she grabs her umbrella. The orcas have the eastern edge and the tortugas are on the west. Every Monday the groups shift over two lanes to the right to give everyone a chance to take advantage of the extra attention an edge lane offers.

“When you do your placing I’m noticing a stroke instead of a glide,” says Lee to one of the swimmers in the tortuga lane.  She pauses the group to give a mini-clinic.  Lee arches forward and leans to the side holding her arm in front of her body.  Then she repositions the arm to demonstrate the proper form for the stroke.  “You want to glide.”  Lee repeats the motion.  All of the tortugas are watching carefully; one nods her head as Lee talks. When the demonstration is done the tortugas continue their laps while Lee observes.

“I really enjoy my time looking at swimmers and giving them feedback,” said Lee.  “These guys don’t need it as much,” she says gesturing towards the orcas.   “Once in a while I’ll throw them something so they know I’m watching.”

Later Lee notices the orcas congregating at the edge of the pool chatting, and not swimming.  “Ohhhhhh!  What’s going on?” asks Lee looking amused.  “Is that all of them?”

She walks over to their lane. The orcas are busted, but it’s all in good fun. “You guys can do a couple more [laps] and glide with your hips back,” Lee says. Having received their marching orders, the orcas start a fresh round of laps.

Soon it’s time for a cool down. The workout ends with some brief announcements and a reminder about who is up for pool cover duty the following Monday. Teammates crawl out of the pool and express their appreciation to Lee as they make beelines for the dressing rooms.  There is an energized frenzy as the swimmers exit the Temescal pool covered from head to toe in winter gear ready to tackle the day.

“Vanessa is a really good coach,” says swimmer Victor Harris, a general contractor who has swum with the team for four years and is in the shark lane.  “Your swimming improves so much when you do interval trainings.  I’ve never done competitive swimming.  [Before joining the team] I knew how not to drown in four different strokes. The social aspect makes it nicer than going by yourself lap swimming.”


  1. Tim Anderson on April 12, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Temescal Pool – one of the many great things about living in Oakland. Studio One, another Oakland asset is right next door.

  2. Brian Stack on April 13, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Great article on the Temescal Masters. I started my Masters Swimming and Coaching careers with Temescal in 1982! I lived around the corner and loved the feeling of swimming with neighbors and friends. I’m still at it all these years later but now I’m the head coach with the Manatee Masters also in Oakland, and I do most of my swimming with the Walnut Creek Masters in Walnut Creek. Keep on keeping on Temescallions!

  3. Cynthia Gorney on April 20, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Nice story, Shilanda! And hooray for Temescal Pool. Those 5:30 AM-ers are hard core.

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