Story By Hannah Lester
Photos By Robert Noles
No one seems to remember exactly when they started, but there is a group of individuals who swim together bright and early each morning at Auburn University called the Early Morning Swimmers.
This group races the sun to the Auburn University Aquatics Center and is at the pool by 5 a.m. And they’ve been doing this for over 40 years.
The swimmers are from all walks of life, those who are retired to those who are new parents with young children.
Terry Rodriguez has been swimming with the group for at least 35 years, though she knows the group was well underway when she joined.
“They had already been [together], most of them, for at least 10 or 15 years,” she said.
Rodriguez was a self-taught swimmer at five years old. When she attended Auburn University, swim lessons were mandatory for all students.
“You had to take swimming; they wanted everyone to know how to swim,” she said.
So, following her time at Auburn, swimming was already an engrained habit. She was a regular swimmer at Samford Pool during the summers, but started wondering if she could brave the cold, come winter weather.
Now, she’s at the pool on Auburn’s campus five days a week, all year round.
The group takes their swimming seriously, though no one is made to feel uncomfortable for their skill level.
“After I’d been coming three days a week for a while, Sandra or Gail said, ‘You know Terry, you could be coming every day,’” she said.
In fact, expect a wakeup call if you aren’t at the pool by 5 a.m. or you miss a day because you decided to sleep in.
“It’s good because you can get all your exercise in first thing in the morning,” said one of the group members, Gail Hoffman.
One group member, Lorraine Wolf, said it’s easier to swim with a group and that she’s been an Early Morning Swimmer for 18 years.
“They’re interesting people and fun to be with,” she said. “And they motivate you. You get motivated to come if you know you’re going to have friends there.”
Jim Helms said that he joined the group in 2012 at the invitation of another member. When he arrived on his first day, all the lanes were full, however.
“I was sitting back and waiting patiently and it’s my nature to be introverted,” he said. “But they welcomed me in and allowed me to swim with them … So it’s a loving, caring group of people.”
Of course, there isn’t an official membership or procedure to join the group.
In fact, Hoffman doesn’t recall when she joined the group.
“I don’t know, because I was always swimming,” she said.
Hoffman was at the pool each morning and so was this group, so eventually she became a member.
“They’re a friendly group. If you become a regular, they just sort of adopt you,” Wolf, who went through a similar experience of showing up at the same time as the group to swim, echoed.
Hoffman said she enjoys swimming because it’s a relaxing way to get moving.
Rodriguez, however, uses the time to multi-task. She may be in the middle of a backstroke, but she’s also likely singing to herself.
Every Tuesday Rodriguez sings jazz at 8th and Rail. She uses her time in the water to practice her song selections.
“Swimming laps is fairly tedious and practicing while swimming is entertaining and a good use of my time,” she said. “Singing is good for the heart, the mind and the soul.”
Catch her in the water singing “All of Me,” “East of the Sun” or “It’s Magic.”
Terry joined by invitation from another member. Hoffman and Wolf joined because they were swimming at the same time as the group anyway.
Helms didn’t even know the pool was open to non-university students before a co-worker, who was an Early Morning Swimmer, told him so.
Some members have even brought their spouses around to the idea. That’s what happened for Elizabeth Schumacher and her husband, Jim. They have been swimming for 32 and 30 years, respectively.
Schumacher was a volunteer at Wrights Mill Elementary. A fellow volunteer told her about the Early Morning Swimmers, and she gave it a go. It took a little time to get her husband on board, however.
“He finally said, ‘I’m waking up every morning, I might as well get up and go to the pool with you,’” she said.
The group has had its fair share of memories and fun over the years.
Schumacher recalled how one of the Auburn lifeguards used to hang out on a trampoline beside the pool and play guitar while the members swam.
“And then he’d fall asleep,” she laughed. “And we’d just be swimming away, and he’d be taking a nap.”
Although, yes, the group’s purpose is swimming and exercise, after over 40 years of swimming together, the group is made up of close friends.
“For a group of people who get in the water and don’t really talk while you’re swimming, to have such a close bond … they’re very welcome,” Helms said.
They’re welcoming to all ages and all walks of life.
“We’ve had young people in the group,” said another group member, Sandra Lewis. “Really the only way to be a part of the group is to keep coming … it’s really fun to have diversity of ages.”
Danielle Hayes is one of those members with young children. She has to get a workout in before her children are up and at ‘em.
“I showed up to swim there at 5:45 am for the first time because I was a mom and worked while my little girl was in preschool in the morning,” she said. “I was greeted by the nicest and most helpful people.”
Hayes said she continued swimming even when pregnant with her second.
“I swam the morning of the night I went into labor with him at 39 weeks,” she said. “A member of their group, Charlie, always saved his lane for me while I was pregnant because he didn’t want an inexperienced swimmer to jump in on top of me.
“The group even gifted me with a tiny swimsuit for Harry. He is three now and knows when I wake him up in the morning with wet hair, it is because I just got back from swimming. It’s a low impact but full body workout you can do until you are 90 and at any fitness level. I love my swimming.”
So, to join the group, just show up, Lewis said. The members meet every morning at the James E. Martin Aquatics Center (664 Biggio Dr.), around 5 a.m., do some stretching together and then hop in the pool.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has taken its toll on the group. The university has imposed restrictions that only allow one swimmer per lane, which greatly reduces the number of swimmers the group can have each morning.
So, if you’ve donned a suit and are heading over one chilly morning, just know that normally there would be three times the members you see, Schumacher said.
“They are people that I would never know,” Lewis said. “I wouldn’t know them. They don’t go to my church, they’re not in my neighborhood, they’re not in my department but they’re people that you just adore.”
The Early Morning Swimmers get together outside of the pool, too, to celebrate birthdays, retirements and holidays.
“It’s just been a long, long friendship and it’s really great,” Rodriguez said. “And most of the people are still there that I started with.”