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In the Swim: A quarter century of competition and friendship with the La Jolla Cove Swim Club

La Jolla Cove Swim Club started out more than 25 years ago as a recreational social group, but it has become something more. At the very least, it’s a training ground for competitive and long-distance swimming.

Whether swimming laps for exercise or overcoming physical and mental obstacles to cross the English Channel, the club offers something for everyone.

The Club, as it is more commonly known, is a non-profit corporation existing to promote open-water swimming and related activities at La Jolla Cove. An outgrowth of the La Jolla Roughwater Swim held in early September at the Cove for the last 75 years, the swim club was created in the late 1970s by a group of regular swimmers and Roughwater competitors who wanted to extend the camaraderie they shared to others.

Marilyn Richards, a retired real estate broker and core member of the Club in its early days. She grins recalling when club dues were $1. Combing through pictures of beloved friends from their heyday in the club, Richards fingers a picture of Herb “Tarzan” Johnson. The tall, lithe Johnson, now 83, struck a dashing pose back then, wearing a Roughwater Swim medal with his omnipresent wooden goggles dangling from his neck.

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“Herb made handcarved wooden goggles and sold them down at the Cove to swimmers,” said Richards. “He would measure people’s eye sockets and wrote down a list.”

A small framed photo of the gang at the Cove rests on Richard’s coffeetable.

“We started with a very limited number of people, about 20, but then the fame spread,” she said. Richards’ coffeetable photo shows her with her trademark duck fins, along with Walter Podney, Jim Triolo, a competitive swimmer at Stanford University credited with the idea of forming La Jolla Cove Swim Club, Jim Eubanks, the early club’s best swimmer, Terry Astle, Tom Oakes, Walter Ocampo, Bird Rock resident Sylvia Cueto who stills swims today despite a hip replacement, Lee Schuster, age 88 and still in good shape, and Maria Shea, who cooked at Schnitzelbank. That restaurant is now Jose’s on Prospect.

“These were daily swimmers, there every day,” said Richards, “and these people came from far and wide. Rita Collins drove 30 miles a day round-trip for her daily swim and still does. I swam year-round, I was so proud of that. How far did you swim today? It was a thing of pride to say, ‘I went to the Shores, then I came back.’ ”

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A few things have changed for La Jolla Cove Swim Club since then. The focus is more on the swim then the soiree. But the fun-loving spirit of the club remains. Dues are now $15 a year, $25 for more than one swimmer at the same address. That’s pretty inexpensive for members who benefit incalculably from their shared aquatic experience.

The Club is why 82-year-old converted pool swimmer Fouad Feretti travels from his Scripps Ranch home five days a week to swim at La Jolla Cove.

“The club has been a godsend for me because I lost my wife six years ago,” Feretti said. “The camaraderie you get ... ocean swimmers, they’re just a breed apart. I look forward to having our little conversations, buoying one another up, learning something new about ocean swimming. I’m a firm believer in exercising, because you either use it or you lose it.”

A La Jolla Roughwater competitor since 1985, Feretti saw a group of people congregating every morning at the Cove and just got curious about what they were doing.

“Finally, I joined the program,” he said. “It’s very worthwhile with low membership dues. You can’t buy anything like that for $15 anywhere.”

Another converted pool swimmer, Steven Dockstader, 53, has been with La Jolla Cove Swim Club for 10 years.

“I wanted some kind of aerobic activity after I retired,” he explained, “and I went down there to investigate what it was all about, and I noticed Bob West, who at the time was training for his second Catalina attempt. He needed swimming partners, and I thought this would be a good way to exercise, and I just became one of his swimming partners.”

Dockstader is a psychologist by profession and has analyzed long-distance swimming. He’s come up with some insights about what drives people to push the limits of their aquatic endurance.

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“I’ve talked to a lot of people about why they do this, and the motives are all over the place,” he said. “The top one has to do with their self-concepts. They’re either trying to enhance their self-concept, deal with it in a way that says, ‘I have done something really notable.’ And it is.”

The other reason is competitiveness, he said. “Some people hear other people have done it and they say, ‘By God, if they did it, I can do it.’ The third part of it is they have a legacy of swimming ever since they were young. This is kind of living out that legacy.”

Carol Sing is a longtime La Jolla Swim Club member and a converted long-distance swimmer who didn’t do aquatic marathons until well into her 40s. She was convinced by La Jolla Cove Swim Club friends that she needed to become a channel swimmer.

Her first long-distance swim was around North Island. She then swam in between islands in Maui in Hawaii. At age 55, she swam the Catalina Channel in 10 hours and 38 minutes. A year later, she circumnavigated New York’s Manhattan Island, a 28 1/2 mile distance, in 8 hours, 45 minutes.

After that, she swam 10 miles a week in La Jolla Cove, gradually increasing that distance to 35 miles. Three days before her 57th birthday, she conquered the English Channel.

Sing, now training for a long-distance event on a paddleboard, which is longer, narrower and lighter than a surfboard, said swimming has always been therapeutic for her.

“There’s just something so wonderful about being in the ocean,” she said. “It just does good things for my soul.”

An Ocean Beach native who grew up in and around the surf, Sing said the switch from regular to long distance was a natural progression. She credits longtime swim club member Bob West, an ex-football coach, for being her mentor and inspiration.

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“Bob’s a very enthusiastic coach,” she explained. “He just said, ‘Oh come on, we’ll do this.’ ”

West, 69, is a converted spear fisherman and free diver who surrendered those pursuits for long-distance swimming at age 49, and has since negotiated both the English and Catalina Island channel crossings.

“A group of people in the club within my first year talked me into swimming a 10-mile race at Seal Beach, and then swimming around Manhattan Island,” West said. “There were people who were just coaxing me into greater adventures.”

West agreed La Jolla Cove Swim Club membership has taken on a decidedly more serious cast the last few years with people like himself, Sing and Anne Cleveland, who’s done a successful double-crossing of the English Channel, leading the way and encouraging others to push themselves.

“The club has kind of been passed on,” West said, “to people who were a little more competitive and more dedicated to reaching out and swimming channels than just recreational swimming.”

Besides having the oldest women to ever cross and double-cross the English Channel, La Jolla Cove Swim Club also boasts the only Americans, including West, to swim from Scotland to Northern Ireland across the cold north channel of the Irish Sea.

“Carol Sing is going to swim the straits of Gibraltar,” West added. “One of our club members, paralyzed from the waist down, swam the straits of Gibraltar from Spain to Morocco two years ago.”

Swim club members have done solo swims of the Maui Channel in Hawaii and around Catalina Island, a total of 50 miles.

“Three teams took 26 hours to swim around Catalina Island, pretty adventurous,” said West. “We had 18 swimmers swim from Capri across the bay of Naples in Italy.”

One of many club members recruited by West, 60-year-old Mike Meaney has been swimming at the Cove for 15 years. He said the natural beauty there is unparalleled and a big draw for those wishing to indulge in open-water swimming.

“One common characteristic of the club is that the attitude of people is very postive,” said Meaney. “The ocean is always different. Every day it’s different. It’s an interesting place to swim because you can actually see some marine life that you can’t see any place else. The Cove was almost designed for swimming.”

Meaney said it’s convenient to swim from the Cove to the Marine Room, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile, or to Scripps Pier and back.

“There are all sorts of challenges,” said Meaney. “It’s going some place rather than just going back and forth on a racetrack.”

Firefighter Ida Jones is a La Jolla Cove Swim Club member who joined mostly for the exercise and camaraderie. She admits it’s also something of a compulsion.

“It’s just necessary for me to get to the water as many days as I can,” said Jones, who works 20 days a month as a firefighter, leaving her 10 days to swim seriously.

Jones was introduced to West and the Cove swim club six years ago.

“Bob and his band of wonderful friends took me in like I was an old friend and showed me the ropes,” she said. “I’ve been there ever since.”

Jones owns one other singular distinction amongst club members: She helped save another club member’s life. “Bob West came in after a two-mile swim and his heart stopped beating,” Jones said. “We performed CPR with a ventilator. Bob is my mentor and a true friend and I refused to give up on him. I shocked him twice with a defibrillator. His eyes opened and he started breathing. He’s just like the Energizer bunny, he just keeps going, and going. ...”

Jones said swim club members are more than just friends to her. “They’re part of my family.”

Just like surfers have dawn patrol adherents, La Jolla Swim Club members turn out early for their daily discourse with mighty Neptune. Swimmers generally turn out in pods of four or more swimmers at 6:30, 7, 8, 9 a.m. or whenever.

“People enjoy swimming with at least one other person, or a few,” said West. “Most people team up with same-speed swimmers and carve out a time to swim.”

There is an all-female group of swimmers, the 9:30 ladies. Saturday morning swims at the Cove are generally the best attended because more people have free time on weekends.

“It’s getting larger every year,” said West, “with more people interested in challenging themselves in all kinds of swimming. The torch is getting passed.”

One direction club officer Dockstader would like to steer the club in is getting increasingly involved in the U.S. Masters organization created by a Navy officer back in the 1970s, partly as a way for swimmers to continue to compete after college.

La Jolla Cove Swim Club recently completed its 7th annual Tour of the Buoys, a five-mile Masters-sanctioned ocean swim race open to Masters swimmers nationwide competing in five-year age groups from 19-24 to 70-74 or older. The Tour of the Buoys is a two-lap race in early August around the yellow Ecological Reserve buoys and back to La Jolla Shores.

“That really is the only sanctioned formal swimming event that the club has once a year,” said Dockstader.

Dockstader would like to see La Jolla Swim Club become even more organized as a Masters swimming organization, competing across the country and the world in various events.

“It is a sport you can do forever,” said Sing. “We have members in their 80s who come out every day. You can do it just because it’s so nice on your joints and bones. Water is a wonderful medium, physically and mentally. There’s just really something about water that’s soothing, relaxing.”