Masters swimmers mobilize to get America’s wounded service members and veterans in the water
Adam Popp reached the bomb quickly that day in 2007. The young Airman had received a tip about a suspicious object hidden underneath a bridge in Gardez, Afghanistan, where he worked on a team disarming improvised explosive devices for the U.S. Air Force. “We dealt with one IED, but then a second device that we hadn’t seen exploded,” says Popp, who suffered severe wounds in the blast, forcing the amputation of his right leg above the knee. Popp eventually went through extensive rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
His recovery included learning how to use a prosthetic walking leg, running blade and cycling limb. “I wanted to get into triathlon a few years after my injury, but I never had any real swim instruction,” he says. Popp asked around for a good place to learn some technique and found himself working out with Lane 4 Swimming, one of the largest Masters clubs in the nation, offering practices across the Washington, D.C., area. He also found he could take advantage of a scholarship program Lane 4 started four years ago to support service members who had been physically or mentally wounded in the line of duty.
The scholarship made it possible for Popp to swim. “The coaches at Lane 4 really helped me with my stroke,” says the 38-year-old, who also sustained injuries to his right arm in the explosion. “My body isn’t symmetrical, so my swim stroke isn’t either.” Popp had to learn how to pull the water efficiently, rotate his body to breathe, and kick with one leg. Minor adjustments led to big drops in time. “I finally figured out how to position my leg to cause the least amount of drag,” he says.
Within two months of joining Lane 4 in early 2015, Popp competed in a triathlon and did the 750-meter swim portion in 22 minutes. In June, he competed in the USA Paratriathlon National Championships and finished the swim in 15 minutes. He has come a long way in two years. He’s also done more than improve his freestyle; he built a community at Lane 4. “When I first showed up, I only wanted to keep up,” he says. “Now I feel really at home and comfortable with these people, and I get to help new swimmers the way people helped me.”
Current and former service members often battle less obvious afflictions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Lane 4 swimmer Jim Halstead, 50, retired from a 20-year military career in 2009. “I saw some hard stuff,” says Halstead, a former Army officer who worked for President George W. Bush in the White House and on special operations teams in places he can’t talk about. “I didn’t realize how much it affected me until I got out.” The prompt and orderly military world cast a harsh light on Halstead’s new civilian life. “I just couldn’t believe that people in the corporate world would show up late to work, backstab, be disrespectful or lazy,” he says. It made him angry. Eventually, a friend pointed out Halstead’s tendency to overreact and suggested he get help. “I chatted with a psychiatrist at the VA, who said I had PTSD and gave me Zoloft,” he says. “I tried it for 30 days and stopped.”
The meds proved no match for the pool. Halstead found the most comfort pushing himself at a Masters workout. “It felt good emotionally, like going back to my hometown,” he says. In time, swim practice helped him feel relaxed and balanced. “I hadn’t realized how much I needed the fun that comes from the social aspect of swimming,” he says.
The wounded service members who swim at Lane 4 don’t pay a dime in club or U.S. Masters Swimming registration fees. They also get fully outfitted with suits, goggles, paddles, and fins by FINIS, a partner on the project. “It’s the very least we can do for these injured athletes,” says Lane 4 founder and head coach Frank Marcinkowski, who strives to create an environment where injured service members can go to practice and not worry about how they look or how well they swim. “You can be on our team as a Division I swimmer, a four-star admiral, or a wounded warrior,” he says. “Everyone gets the same status.” Marcinkowski hopes that becoming a Masters swimmer will help these heroes return their lives to some kind of normal.
Lane 4 holds workouts at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda (where Olympian Katie Ledecky attended high school), immediately adjacent to Walter Reed. Marcinkowski and several of his assistant coaches got the idea to award scholarships to wounded service members and vets after watching them do physical therapy exercises through a fence that divides the two facilities. “We saw these people who were missing arms and legs using specialized bicycles out there in the heat, and it really affected us,” Marcinkowski says. Now, nearly a dozen injured service members and veterans swim with Lane 4, many of them men and women in their 20s and 30s who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Lane 4 Coach Kylene Dey likes the way these athletes make her think. “How do I teach this person to use his body when he’s missing a limb?” the former Rollins College swimmer asks. “How do I help someone with PTSD who needs a morale booster?” By trial and error she finds a way. If she catches herself over-coaching, she stops and listens to what the swimmer needs. What she admires most about this group is its work ethic. “They approach swimming the same way they approach every activity in the military. The complete dedication they give to a task, the drive to succeed, the desire to be good is always present. It makes no difference that they’re in a pool,” she says.
Swimming rehab or pool therapy gets prescribed quite commonly to people with joint pain, soft tissue injuries, or amputations, especially at Walter Reed. “Many patients find that they’re able to do things in the water that they can’t do on dry land,” says Robert Bahr, an orthopedic and rehabilitation therapist at the hospital. Patients who can’t tolerate sitting on a bicycle or running can often tolerate aquatic exercise. Because the water offers a low impact environment and light resistance, athletes can build strength and endurance day after day. Swimming, Bahr says, can also ease joint pain and help range of motion problems, making it a great way for athletes to get back into a regular exercise program.
VETERANS MAKING A SPLASH
A few hours north, Jane Katz does her part to support men and women who have served America in uniform. The Asphalt Green Masters swimmer runs a program called W.E.T.s 4 Vets out of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “We use the holistic benefits of water exercise to help veteran students transition to civilian life,” says Katz, a physical education professor at the college. Katz, 74, has earned respect teaching swimming to New York City police officers, firefighters, and students using water exercise techniques (W.E.T.s), a method she pioneered and that highlights the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of aquatic exercise.
When Katz noticed some veterans at John Jay struggling with depression, stress, and physical atrophy, she wondered if W.E.T.s would benefit them. She had to find out. “I invited a few veterans to join my classes, and by word of mouth the program grew,” Katz says. She estimates that a thousand students have signed up for W.E.T.s. 4 Vets since it launched in 2012. (Non-veterans may participate, but the emphasis falls on helping vets.)
A typical class begins with a 10-minute warm-up followed by a 40-minute main set. Instead of swimming laps, the veterans partner up and perform water exercises in small groups. “The buddy system mimics the military’s ‘got your back’ mindset,” Katz says. After learning a new skill, such as a back float or bilateral breathing, the students change partners so they can forge new friendships. The cool-down mixes in a little fun—water volleyball with beach balls. “Every class should help these veterans gain self-confidence as they become more relaxed and competent in the water,” Katz says.
Cinttia Moreno, a 31-year-old Air Force veteran who served in Turkey and Italy, enrolled in the classes last year. “I found many things in common with the other veterans,” says Moreno, who studies international criminal justice at John Jay. “We get each other, and we understand certain things.” Moreno talks about a time she and her peers stared in disbelief when a civilian classmate pulled out a cell phone during class. “It’s disrespectful to text when your instructor is talking, and in the military, it’s just a big no-no to be disrespectful,” she says. Moreno appreciates that Katz has provided a place where she can ease back into civilian life, set some fitness goals, and learn to swim among people who share similar life experiences.
Army veteran Jonathan Martinez, 27, likes how the classes feel on his injured body. He fractured several vertebrae in a fall during his deployment to the eastern border of Pakistan, where he helped stop traffic flow among different factions of the Taliban. When he left the Army in 2013, he enrolled at John Jay and joined Katz’s class. He’s never stopped going. “I enjoy the physical activity, and I love how comfortable I feel with Jane,” he says. “She gives me a place to shine like I’m the best swimmer in the world.” Before W.E.T.s 4 Vets here, Martinez only knew how to keep his head above water. “Now I’ve doubled my speed in freestyle, and I’ve started learning the other strokes,” he says.
Nearly 20 million veterans live in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Approximately 4 million of them have a service-related disability. Thirty-one percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent of Gulf War veterans, and 31 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. Frank Marcinkowski, his Lane 4 coaches, and Jane Katz have offered their body- and soul-loving sport to hundreds, maybe thousands, of these men and women. Swimming made a difference in Adam Popp’s life. It restored Jim Halstead’s hope. It’s kept Cinttia Moreno and Jonathan Martinez happy and active. How will Masters Swimming change a life next?