Diving into a new friendship: The Swimmers of Suffolk YMCA

Published 7:05 pm Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The Suffolk YMCA continues to unite and empower the community through health and wellness. As part of the larger 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization across the country, Suffolk YMCA aims to be a destination for families and friends to form connections.

Ralph “Bud” Swiger, Debbie Farrell, Ken Williams and Julie Irby each have found a connection with each other over their love for swimming. Despite their various levels, the four visited the Suffolk YMCA for swimming activities and became fast friends, referring to themselves as “The Three Musketeers and D’Artagnan.” Williams reflected on how they connected after the YMCA’s reopening following COVID.

“When COVID hit and shut the Y down, the lap swimmers were actually the people who first reopened the Y, and we would go in the morning, and it didn’t matter if it was rain or shine, or how warm or cold it was. We were the ones that ended up helping reopen the Y,” he said. “Debbie started swimming about that time, at least when I first got to know her. Right after Bud came here, I met him actually on Labor Day. I was the first one in the pool, he was the second one in and we got them talking, and just a friendship developed from that. Just a common interest in swimming and staying active.”

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A 78-year-old Suffolk native, Williams says he learned to swim as a teenager.

“We had an outdoor pool in Suffolk, and I took swimming lessons there. I spent a lot during the summers at that pool,” Williams said. 

Later in his life, Williams got into various exercise methods, including walking, running and swimming. He noted becoming distant from swimming while focusing on walking. Eventually, Williams started having problems with his shoulder.

“I guess 20 years ago now, I started having a shoulder issue on my right shoulder. I went to the doctor, and he asked me what I was doing for exercise, and I told him he said, ‘Well, that’s not gonna help your shoulder any.’ …I said, ‘Well, I used to swim a lot.’ He said, ‘That would be great.’ At that point, I got back into swimming. Ended up joining the fitness center that was run by Chesapeake General Hospital over at Taylor Bend, and I’ve been swimming ever since,” Williams said.

Irby shares a similar story with Williams. She grew up in a small town near Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, and recalls learning to swim in Lake Ontario as a child with her grandfather.

“I had a wonderful, not great, but a wonderful grandfather who decided he would start water skiing and ride the boat and did all that kind of stuff, so he entertained all the children with that and got us in the water,” Irby said. 

Irby stressed that she never swam competitively while growing up, noting her town did not have a swim team. As an adult, swimming continued to play a part in her life. She reflected on moving to Suffolk in 1984 and how she made it a core focus in her life.

“When we moved to Suffolk, to be honest, we were building our house in Suffolk, and we didn’t have our water hooked up yet. So we joined the Y so we can take a shower,” she said with a laugh. “And then I just started swimming and made it a practice to swim a mile a day and did that through having my children, for years, really.”

She recounted swimming three days a week before going to work. Expressing having bad knees and having knee replacements, she noted how swimming has proven beneficial in the long run.

“I feel like swimming helped me prolong longevity for my knees,” she said. “It’s just a good exercise if you’ve got back problems or leg problems or balance problems. Swimming is something that anybody can do.”

Despite preferring to relax while swimming, her friendship with Swiger led her to participate in the Keystone Pennsylvania State Games, landing a win in her division.

“It was a given. I was the only one in my age group. Nobody could beat me,” she humorously said. “It was done for fun for me…I’m really not used to pushing myself like that, but I’ll probably do it again for next year.”

For Swiger and Farrell, swimming competitively has been a huge part of their lives. A native of Clarksburg in West Virginia and a retired dental surgeon, Swiger calls himself a self-proclaimed “water bug” as he learned how to swim at Clarksburg YMCA in their babies program. This would soon see Swiger swimming through his youth and taking part as a summer league swimmer. During his years at Woodberry Forest School, he got into distance running. 

“So I was a distance runner in all three areas and ran for Woodbury for 11 of the 12 seasons. And I thrived and had a wonderful experience with running. At this time, I did not swim a lap,” he said. “I went to the University of Virginia, where I also made the varsity team and ran cross country and track there.”

However, at age 42, Swiger got back into swimming due to developing acute asthma issues. Not being able to breathe while running, he also noted that he had parts of his body become numb from hypoxia due to the asthma as well.

“So I had to stop running, which broke my heart, but I had been watching my two girls swim competitively, of which they reached very high levels of competitive swimming, as they were growing up regionally and sometimes nationally. I decided since I’m going to all these swim meets watching them, why don’t I get back in the water and see if that helps my asthma and join the club as they say. So that’s what I did,” he said. “I found out that the moist air above the pool helped my asthma tremendously, opened my lungs and basically rejuvenated me so I could do something… I basically say that swimming has saved my life from asthma.”

This rediscovery saw Swiger take part in open water swims in lakes, rivers and oceans from 1 to 3 miles. At age 45, he returned to pool swimming while joining the Leesburg’s Virginia Masters Swim team. Likewise, Swiger took part in statewide pool and open water competitions as well as various championships such as the YMCA Masters, USA Masters, Pan American Masters, and even competing in the Canadian National Master in Alberta, Canada. Swiger also swam across the Chesapeake Bay during the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim in a 4.4 mile swim. Noting that he swam with “Olympians of his age” and older as well as “some of the nicest people of all walks of life,” one swim he remembers fondly was a race 15 years ago in Sarasota, Florida with Burwell “Bumpy” Jones, gold winner of the Pan American Games in 1951.

“Very gentlemanly, like he was 15 or 14 years older than me. I was in my early 50s and I was spry and fast and I thought of myself as being a good swimmer. First mistake. He was next to me. And he did look his age, but he was such a gentleman, and he was a doctor, like me,” he said.

On their swim, Swiger recounted being ahead of him after the butterfly and a little ahead during the backstroke. They both made it to the 50 freestyle.

“I did not even consider him to be near me enough to do anything. So I sprint[ed] at the last 50, and I remember touching with 25 yards to go, and he’d gotten to around my feet and the lady next to me. I went, ‘Wow, he’s caught up to me a little bit. So I’ll just sprint the last lap, and I can jokingly say that I beat an Olympian,” Swiger said. “Well, I sprinted the last lap, and I’ll always remember coming in and touching the wall, looking back and not seeing him. And he was already leaning up against the pool with his goggles off with his hand outstretched and said ‘Good race, Ralph.’ and I was huffing and puffing and he was not breathing at all. Hard.”

Farrell, a native of New Jersey and the youngest of four, learned to swim from her mother and recalls having to always keep up with her siblings, especially her big brother. Along with swimming at a tennis swim club, Farrell swam at the Summit YMCA with instructors that went on to become Olympic coaches, to which she called a “great experience.” 

“I had great coaches growing up. [I] joined the Montclair YMCA team when I was the last kid at home and I cannot say enough what my YMCA family was like,” Farrell said. “I still keep in touch with my coach, the girls on our team, we just had such a wonderful experience together. We were the top Y in the country at the Y nationals, and it was just fun.”

After graduating from Columbia High School in 1972, Farrell went to Monmouth University. Her graduation was also around when Title IX of Educational Amendments of 1972 was passed, prohibiting discrimination and exclusion of persons in education programs and activity on the basis of sex. Farrell reflected on her experience competing during her college years.  

“The girls were just beginning to be accepted as a swim team. Title IX was in ‘72 which made it possible for girls and women to continue their athletic prowess in their collegiate years. And so, it was a wonderful experience with Coach Steadman,” she said. “He found a way to get us to be able to go to Nationals, which at that time was run by the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women), which was then taken over by the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). There were [no] divisions for college, so we swam against the Stanfords and the UVAs and Texas. I had qualified first in the 50 [freestyle] at the Nationals of Penn State in ‘74 and my mom drove eight hours to watch me swim for 24 seconds.”

Farrell won and set the National Collegiate record that year. Her team as a whole was seventh in the country despite Monmouth University being a very small college. Farrell went on to become a biology teacher, but also served as a swim coach at New Jersey’s Warren Hills Regional High School for 25 years. After moving to Virginia to be close to family, she started swimming at the Suffolk YMCA where she met Swiger, Irby and Williams. She reflected on that time meeting them.

“We fell into this friendship. The three of them had met before me and called themselves ‘The Three Musketeers.’ And I said, ‘Wow, thank you for including me and I guess I am D’Artagnan: the historic fourth musketeer,” she said humorously.

Each expressed how important swimming is while speaking highly of the Suffolk YMCA for those who want to learn. Swiger noted that as long as one knows how “to float and move their arms and legs,” a person can learn to swim. Noting those who are afraid, Farrell gave positive remarks on Suffolk YMCA Aquatics Director Christie White providing help for clients. Likewise, she emphasized how important the skill is.

“I just think it is a very important skill and lifelong skill to learn and I know they do a wonderful job at our Y with the water aerobics which I would think would help people to sort of just get over their fear of being in the water,” Farrell said. 

Irby also emphasized how Suffolk YMCA supports the community while also noting how important it is for young people to learn swimming skills, especially for safety.

“For kids, it’s a safety pin for life to be able to swim. The Y offers private lessons and just get comfortable in the water, get your face in the water and there’s so many good things,” Irby said.