Text by Christine Hitt
Images by Ryan Young
The sky is covered with a blanket of clouds on a Wednesday morning at Santa Monica Beach. I was told to arrive at 6 a.m. promptly, and when I do, I easily spot the large group I’m there to meet near lifeguard tower 26, which is about a mile south of the pier.
Dressed in swimwear, goggles, and swim caps, the 75 or so people of different ages and sizes are participants in a triathlon training program, aptly named Tower 26, that meets for beach swims here on Wednesdays from May through October. Swim coach and founder of Tower 26, Gerry Rodrigues, addresses the group loudly over the sound of the ocean and excited chatter. At 59 years old, he stands confidently in front of the crowd wearing a zipped-up hoodie and shorts. He has a voice that demands attention, so everyone quiets down and turns to listen.
Rodrigues learned to swim at the age of 7 in Trinidad, where he grew up. “According to my father, I’ve been asking him since I was 3 years old to learn to swim,” Rodrigues told me earlier. “Finally, after four years of that, I bothered him too much that he decided when I was 7 to take me for swimming lessons at the local YMCA, and then there was no turning back. I’ve been swimming for 50 years.”
He moved to the United States in 1980 at the age of 16 to further his swim training, which increased his exposure to other athletes and access to better facilities. Throughout his career, he won more than 100 open-water races, and he is a U.S. and World Masters Champion for pool and open water. He started coaching while he was a collegiate swimmer at Pepperdine in the ’80s, and he never stopped.
In 2010, he founded Tower 26 when he saw a need for scalable specialty coaching for triathletes. Now, the organization coaches around 1,000 people per month. He’s been exclusively training triathletes the past 10 years, and he leads the Tower 26 swim program.
I’m sort of one of these lucky people in the world who was probably just born to do what they do.Gerry Rodrigues
“The biggest fear or challenge for triathletes is the swim,” Rodrigues tells me. “Although it’s the shortest segment of the race—the swim takes anywhere between 10 percent to 18 percent of the time of the entire race—it accounts for the highest anxiety amongst athletes participating.”
The anxiety is caused by the vast differences between swimming in the ocean versus the pool. There are no lane lines to assist with staying on track, and there’s no place to stop to rest when exhaustion or panic settles in. Tower 26 teaches members how to manage swimming in the ocean when there are a couple thousand people swimming the same course, how to sight on the ocean to swim straight, and how to make a turn at a buoy where there are many others doing the same. Training and coaching only happen in the pool until trainees learn the necessary skills to swim in open water—they must be able to swim 1 mile continuously in under 36 minutes before they can join beach swims.
“Gerry is amazing,” says Jim Lubinksi, who oversees Tower 26’s swim, bike, run triathlon division and coaches athletes one on one. “Not only is he a coach, but he has also been an athlete, so he can walk the walk. He has that real-world experience that he uses in his coaching,” Lubinski continues, as the crowd moves toward the water to begin their 15-minute warm-up to a buoy and back. “He pays attention to every little detail, and because of that, it’s helped me to become a better coach and to pay attention to detail and all those little things.”
“I’m sort of one of these lucky people in the world who was probably just born to do what they do,” says Rodrigues. “From that eager 7-year-old, the eagerness hasn’t diminished. I enjoy—100 percent—teaching, whether I’m coaching an Olympian or coaching somebody who’s there for their very first time.”
GERRY RODRIGUES’ TIPS FOR OPEN-OCEAN SWIMMING
1. Safety is always first. You need to be comfortable, and you need to know how to manage possible conditions.
2. Know the wind, surf height, surf power and water temperature. Wind can create chop, and extreme temperatures and big surf will all increase difficulty.
3. Find a coach or group like Tower 26 that can give you instruction, so when you do go into the ocean to swim, you are safe.
Expert Tip: Even if the surf is small, note if it’s breaking in shallow water because of low tide, and if so, be mindful when swimming to shore by looking under your armpit or turning to check for any surf coming in.