David Vail swims during a meet last year in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Submitted photo

After swimming in college and then running road races, marathons and everything in between, David Vail decided he had enough of the ground-and-pound nature of running and turned back to the pool.

Bowdoin College, his place of work, had just opened a pool and so the 49-year-old Vail started spending his hour lunch break at the pool.

That’s when, he said, “the competitive juices started flowing again.”

Vail soon joined the Polar Bear Masters workout group, a Brunswick swim team and, specifically, the Bowdoin pool, where older people could train three days a week and compete competitively at any age. Now 77, Vail has been all over the world because of the Polar Bears and the U.S. Masters Swimming program.

Vail competed in just one meet of the season because of the coronavirus pandemic — the National Senior Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“It’s 5,500 feet altitude so it took some (time) to get used to it and the first couple days we were panting,” Vail said. “There was a big group from Maine, over 100 people from Maine in sports like softball, track and field, so on. There were 17,000 competitors at the senior games. They try to make it seem kind of like the Olympics.”

Vail finished second in the 200-yard backstroke, third in the 50-yard backstroke, fourth in the 50-yard butterfly and 100-yard backstroke, and fifth in the 200-yard freestyle, all in the 75-79 age division.

Dave Bright, a former Bowdoin swimmer who now coaches the Brunswick High School’s swim team, has been with the masters swimming program since its inception several years ago.

“It’s something that’s always been part of my life,” Bright said. “In high school and college I swam. I finished college in the mid-70s and masters swimming at a national level was just getting started. I’ve been with it.”

Bright is one of three coaches of the Polar Bears and oversees the practices, which Vail said are crucial to success.

“As far as learning goes that’s absolutely true and that’s why the coaches are so important,” Vail said. “They’ll pick up on turn mechanics and rate of arms and what not. It never gets boring; you’re always learning and correcting.”

Vail’s teammate, Fred Schlicher, a Brunswick native, is one of the best masters swimmers around.

Schlicher entered just one meet this season but is ranked first nationally in the 100-yard butterfly and the 200-yard freestyle because of it.

Mike Hurd, Ben Morse, Fred Pierce, Katrine Alcaide, David Vail and Jesse Alcaide pose during a New England Championship masters meet in Massachusetts two years ago. Submitted photo

“He has been involved in masters from the start and where he’s different is he’s been setting world and national records in masters swimming for a while,” Vail said. “He only swam in one meet in early November but he’s still first in two events. He is the amazing swimmer in our Polar Bear group.”

Vail has put up his own impressive results, including in 1999 when studying in Sweden. There, he found a pool and a swim team to train with. He then went on to have an impressive meet at the Swedish nationals.

“I have some memories of back in college when I was on relays that were breaking pool records, but in masters swimming it was the meet in Sweden that sticks out the most,” Vail said. “I got there in January, found a team and trained for a couple months and I won four individuals and won a relay. It was a mixed mens and womens relay and it was a world record, that was really special to be on a team with a bunch of Swedish swimmers.”

Vail won the 200-meter medley relay in which he swam the butterfly, as well as the 200-meter medley, 100-meter backstroke, 100-meter medley and the 400-meter freestyle. The range in swims he’s able to do in masters swimming keeps him coming back.

“That’s one of the really neat things where instead of in college where you have to specialize, you can dabble in all the strokes and that’s what Dave does, as well,” Vail said. “He was primarily a back in college but he does it all now. He does the really hard longer distance events. Anyone you ask and the 200 butterfly and the 400 medley are the hardest but those are the ones he excels in.”

Bright said that the Polar Bears — as well as masters swimming — is for everyone.

“There’s a pretty wide range of abilities,” Bright said. “There are people that are outstanding collegiate swimmers and some train at a high level and some people want some exercise and enjoy the group and are not interested in competition. We try the best we can to cast a wide net and appeal to everyone and give everyone a bit of what they are looking for.”

“The number of people has gone way up and there are some people who were college stars or olympians who come back to it and sometimes never leave,” Bright added. “They tend to accommodate that size; there’s only a handful of pools big enough so you can go see some of the best pools. It would be like bringing your softball team to Yankee Stadium.

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