Pardon Mark Begert if he waxes poetic when it comes to his Lawrence River City Sharks swimming club.
While most of his clubmates profess not to care whether they work out inside or out and shrug off any concerns about the club's ridiculously early wake-up calls, the notion of early mornings outdoors seems to bring Begert alive.
"I love it outdoors," Begert said. "We probably get up at 4 in the morning, and we're down there at 10 till 5. We have to take out the 25-yard lanes and put in the 50-meter lanes. We put up the flags. The lights are on, but the stars are out. Of course, the lights are on underwater in the pool.
"But you start swimming like that, and 45 minutes later the sun's coming up. You swear you're in Santa Barbara or somewhere like that. The weather's usually just perfect. Usually the water's a little cool, but it's fun seeing it go from dark to sunrise."
Begert is one of a handful of swimmers who have been with the Sharks - a masters swim fitness group affiliated with United States Masters Swimming - since the beginning in 1994.
The club meets at 5:30 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. In the summer, the members swim at the Outdoor Aquatic Center; during the school year, they move indoors to the Indoor Aquatic Center and Lawrence High's Knox Natatorium.
The Sharks are early to bed and early to rise by necessity.
Pool time is at a premium in this town, so the Sharks have to beat the sun if they want the pool to themselves.
Not that they mind.
"Some people find it hard to do, but those who show up overcome that," said Neil Salkind, another member since the club's founding. "Most of us enjoy it. We get our exercise out of the way for the day."
A club is born
The Sharks - which today boasts a roster of close to 40 swimmers, men and women, ranging from college-aged to into their 70s - are the result of an advertisement placed in the paper.
The ad asked anybody interested in a recreation Masters Swimming club to attend a meeting at the public library.
Gary Kempf, then Kansas University's swimming coach, was among the speakers. Kempf said he'd coach the club or find an assistant from KU to coach the club.
From that meeting and the word of mouth that followed, the Sharks were hatched.
"It's basically a club that provides the opportunity to train for competitive swimming or to train for fitness swimming," Salkind said. "We have people who basically want to become betters swimmers and some who like to compete nationally and everything in between. We're very open and accepting. We're equal opportunity."
Though the Sharks' Web site - community.law-rence.com/sharks/ - stresses that the program is designed to stress fitness over competitiveness, it also can feed the competitive jones.
"It's for people of any age, even old people like me," said Sharks president David Longhurst, 64. "It's not typically for kids. The Aquahawks have a program for kids, and that's competitive swimming. That's a team, if you will. They train to compete. With masters, we're just swimming for exercise.
"There are swim meet that we often go to, but that's not necessarily the purpose of the activity. It's just to enjoy swimming."
Unlike some groups of like-minded exercisers, however, the Sharks employ two coaches to plan the club's workouts.
Kent and Annette McDonald - who also serve, respectively, as coaches at Lawrence High and Free State High - coach the Sharks, providing specific workouts and overseeing practices.
"One of the nice things with masters is, you can have a regular schedule," Longhurst said. "If you do four or three mornings a week, it becomes part of your exercise regimen. For many people, that's easier than trying to do it on your own. And we have great coaches, coaches who help you improve your stroke. You don't just get in the pool and start swimming. The exercise is different every day - different strokes, different lengths, different kinds of exercises.
"On a typical day, we swim about 3,000 yards or so, but it changes. Every exercise, every day is different, but there's always a plan. There's always a reason why we're doing what we're doing, depending on what you're trying to improve - your endurance, your speed, improving your stroke, whatever."
But banish the notion of a coach deckside barking orders at the toiling swimmers.
A Sharks practice is considerably more low-key than a competitive swim team.
"One nice thing about this club is, everybody's very social," Begert said. "Most swim practices, you think about coaches yelling orders, everybody in lockstep. We'll be sarcastic to the coach, talk about movies we've seen, what we've eaten. We talk over the lanes. We do our workout and fit our socializing in."
The cost is $40 a month, or $25 a month for students.