Water Wizards Make a Splash

Seniors find friendship and exercise at Rumsey Pool

The DC Water Wizards practice at the Rumsey Aquatic Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m.

Fact: One in ten people who fracture a hip dies within a month.

Fact: Swimming is the only type of exercise shown to lower the risk of a fall for older adults.

Facts: The DC Water Wizards are a swim team for seniors aged 50 and up, they practice Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9-11am at the Rumsey pool next door to Eastern Market, and they’re an amazingly warm and welcoming bunch of folks, some of whom didn’t even know how to swim when they joined, and many of whom have recovered from serious surgeries with the help of swimming.

Their chair, Dinah Griggsby, is all of the above.

“I had two bouts of breast cancer, but here I am,” Griggsby beamed. “Swimming’s really been the best thing for me. All I wanted to do was come back to the pool, just to swim with my group. Swimming seems to be an equalizer. If you can get in the water, you can do it!”

Kathleen Grant, the co-chair of the Water Wizards, agreed.

“Almost no matter what’s wrong with you, the first thing a doctor will let you do is get in the water,” she said. “I have a torn meniscus and a pinched nerve issue in my back, but I got off a really powerful medication because my back muscles got so much stronger.”

Grant accidentally joined the team four years ago after an injury prevented her from jogging anymore. She had started going to the Rumsey pool for lessons on how to properly swim freestyle, until one day that part of the pool was too full and she was bumped over to the lanes where the Water Wizards practice.

"There was this guy who just kind of leaned over and said, ‘You know, you’re crossing your arms. That means you’re working harder than you need to be,’” Grant recalled. “Next time I went back and tried to get into the other part of the pool, they told me, ‘No, no, you’re on the swim team now.’”

The guy was Water Wizards coach Rodger McCoy, and the Rumsey branch of the DC-wide Water Wizards team includes 15-20 regular participants, eight to ten of whom might come to practice on any given day.

“The primary purpose of this program is fun, camaraderie, and building a team. Not just within Rumsey or Takoma or Turkey Thicket, but all over the city and, hopefully, all over the nation,” McCoy said.

The Water Wizards team, as McCoy defines it, includes not only those swimmers based at the Rumsey or Takoma Park pools who choose to compete in occasional events, like the recent DC Senior Games, but also the folks who take part in water aerobics classes and senior swimming lessons around the District.

There’s a lot about the experience of swimming with the Rumsey group that is unexpected for newcomers.

“Swimming allows tremendous range of motion and strength development,” McCoy explained. “A lot of people don’t think about it, but swimming really involves moving weight – the weight of the water – because you have to pull yourself through the water. Your legs, your arms, your entire body’s working with the water.”

Kathleen Grant has been astonished by the strength gains she’s made participating in such a low-impact sport. “My body has so completely changed. I stand up straighter, and no matter where you poke me now, I feel like you can tell that there’s been some muscular development from swimming. And it’s so motivating!”

Rumsey regular Sonja Williams has always loved swimming but had never been involved with a team before.

“It wasn’t until I was on sabbatical [from Howard University] and I knew that I had time that I got into it and I was like, ‘Wow, I should have done this sooner,’” Williams said. “One, it’s great fun. And two, there’s a lot of camaraderie. Not just with our coach, but we all help each other and talk about each other’s strokes, and it’s just fantastic.”

Several Water Wizards members who learned to swim as adults with McCoy’s coaching and the team’s support competed in the DC Senior Games last month, and some will even go on to compete in the National Senior Games in July.

“When I started, I couldn’t even go 25 yards,” recalled team chair Dinah Griggsby. “They taught me how to swim, and now they’re teaching me how to compete. I went to Cleveland for nationals in 2013 and I came in tenth in the 500! So this is just a life-saver for me.”

Co-chair Kathleen Grant has improbably made it to nationals, too, but is quick to point out that competition is not required.

“This isn’t the Olympics. People just want to see if they can do it,” she assured. “People are worried about the competition, or the chlorine, but you should just come try it. It’s done so much for me, and I see what it’s done for others, I just don’t want anyone to miss out.”

“You don’t even have to swim to be a Water Wizard,” promised Griggsby. “You can be part of the family, part of the community. We need marketing, fundraising, advocacy, because we need somebody to speak up for us as seniors. If you just want to do water aerobics, that’s fine, you can still be a part of this.

“As seniors, people should be happy that we’re all out here getting exercise, so we’re not a burden on anybody. We’re taking care of ourselves!”

Practices offer something for everybody, including warm-up, drills, and interval training

The Rumsey Aquatic Center, located on Capitol Hill behind Eastern Market, is open daily and offers a wide variety of classes, lessons, practices, and lap swim options. For more information, visit the DPR website or call 202-724-4495.