When Frank Marcinkowski, a longtime masters swimming coach, talked to Ed Zerkle, a coach of local triathletes, about merging their groups for swim training, Zerkle laid everything on the line: Some of his athletes could not swim fast. Some had poor technique. Some couldn’t dive; many couldn’t do flip turns.
But they were in great shape, and worked hard, and were interested in swimming with Marcinkowski’s Curl-Burke Masters group.
Zerkle looked at Marcinkowski to gauge his reaction.
“I thought he would say, ‘We’re looking for real swimmers,’” Zerkle said. “Instead, he said, ‘Wow, that’s fantastic.’ It sounds like a part of our program we would like to grow.”
Zerkle could not sign his Tri-Team Z training group up fast enough. His triathletes had grown accustomed to being shunned by hard-core runners, cyclists and swimmers who seemed to resent the intrusion of non-specialists. The reaction from Marcinkowski was, he said, a welcome first.
“He’s our godfather, so to speak,” Zerkle said. “Frank’s vision is to create one of the most complete masters swimming programs in the country in the same way Curl-Burke has a world-class, age-group program.”
Marcinkowski is doing exactly that. Not in a small, subtle way, but in a huge, almost incomprehensible manner. The club for non-elite adult swimmers had about a dozen members in 2004; this year, its membership swelled to 525, making it the largest masters program in the nation outside of California. The furious growth of the team under Marcinkowski, assistant Jim Halstead and their staff of part-time coaches is regarded with nothing short of awe and reverence by officials at the U.S. Masters Swimming, the sport’s national governing body.
“They are growing like wildfire in that program,” USMS Executive Director Rob Butcher said. “They’re a terrific model for us.”
Butcher, Zerkle and others say numbers have soared because Marcinkowski has tried to strip the elitism from masters swimming, often thought to be populated with former competitive stars who have little tolerance for learners.
At the Colonies Zone Short Course Yards Championship in April, many Curl-Burke Masters swimmers drew stares, then cheers, for competing in the 1,650-yard freestyle – a race preferred among triathletes because it is not a speed event and doesn’t require, say, the butterfly or breaststroke – despite not diving in to start or executing flip turns.
Despite the obvious inexperience in certain corners, Curl-Burke Masters still took the overall team title, topping Virginia Masters, a one-time perennial champ that has felt Curl-Burke’s rise.
“We have now lost three out of four years to Curl-Burke,” Virginia Masters swimmer Dick Cheadle wrote in the club’s Aug. newsletter. “Why? One only has to look at the numbers to answer that question … This year Curl-Burke had 111 swimmers, and we only had 47, thus yet another discouraging loss.”
Marcinkowski said the team’s recent success is almost beside the point.
“We’re very competitive, but that sort of just falls into place,” Marcinkowski, 50, said. “The team is not, on its face, competitive. That’s a fun by-product of the team.”
Between 2000 and 2004, the Curl-Burke Masters Swimming team languished. It was home to between seven and 26 swimmers during that five-year span. At the time, Marcinkowski thought it was flatly ridiculous that his masters group in swimming, a true sport for life, could not attract more athletes in the swim-crazy Greater Washington region.
Yet he understood the club’s reputation for imperious and unwelcoming athletes.
He didn’t like it, and he didn’t want it.
“When Frank took over, the club had an elitism mentality and Frank just cleaned house,” Butcher said. “They started over.”
Marcinkowski, a swimmer at the University of North Dakota, recruited fitness buffs, triathletes, casual swimmers, serious swimmers, anybody with an interest in the sport. He and his coaches had a firm policy: Everybody who walked on the pool deck – everybody – would be welcomed. He also fought for lane space at pools around the District to accommodate growing membership, and tried new things: his club has been conducting open-water practices for eight years despite occasional trouble claiming sufficient park space.
“Over time, word got out that we offered a fantastic place to train and develop your stroke,” Marcinkowski said.
Rufus Harris, 68, said he tired of jogging around the block and took up triathlons in his late 50s. In search of a place to swim, he said, he visited a number of clubs around town until he tried Curl-Burke Masters four years ago. He immediately knew he had found a home.
“Some of the other places were, ‘There’s a lane and go swim and don’t bother us,’” Harris said. The Curl-Burke Masters coaches “seemed genuinely glad to have me there, and they made me feel part of the group.”
As Marcinkowski strove to build the club, he juggled his full-time job as a vice president at the Alexandria-based PCCI, an environmental engineering company, as well as responsibilities to his late wife, Tricia, and four children, who range in age from 14 to 24. The most traumatic period for Marcinkowski came near the end of his wife’s eight-year battle with breast cancer.
After several nerve-rattling but hopeful years in which she seemed to have beaten the disease, doctors discovered the cancer had spread. She died in February 2008.
“We didn’t quite make 25 years” of marriage, Marcinkowski said. “It was 24-and-three-fourths … Her last two-and-a-half years were really rough. Her diagnosis was very bad… When [the cancer] came back in spots, it was very serious.”
In the years before her illness, the family had spent plenty of time in the water together, tubing, water-skiing and fishing in Marcinkowski’s boats, and diving and snorkeling on vacations. There were soccer games and swim training with the masters team and, finally, late nights spent at Tricia Marcinkowski’s bedside.
Marcinkowski remembered her final six months as “very dismal.”
But he also remembered the place he was able to heal. His whole family came together.
Both of them.
“After my kids and my family, the swim team was the best way to be able to make it through,” Marcinkowski said. “You’ve got 500 friends out there.”