Women of a certain age discover the benefits of being bouyant
I limp into the locker room and do a one-foot shimmy trying to change into my swimsuit without aggravating my injured hip. No luck. I wince as the spasm hits and grab onto the locker door to keep from going down.
A petite brunette at the next locker smiles encouragement and says she’s been there. “Here,” says Carolyn Abbey, 50, of Chevy Chase, handing me a Pepto-Bismol-pink swim cap festooned with floppy white flowers. “We wear these. It’s fun.”
The cap looks like the ones my grandmother gave me when I visited her in Fort Lauderdale as a child. It’s the unofficial uniform of Maggie Zimmerman’s Aqua Motion classes at Equinox in Bethesda. Wearing it as I step into the gym’s subterranean saltwater lap pool is like entering a time portal.
For the next hour, about 20 other women and I laugh, splash and sing together loudly and largely off-key as we thrash around using the long, cylindrical plastic foam pool toys known as “noodles” for resistance and flotation. We ride the noodles across the pool like hobbyhorses, jump on them like pogo sticks and pump them like weights—all the while trying not to lose control of our noodle and whack somebody in the head.
“Watch out for flying noodles,” Zimmerman warns. “Remember, the noodle is a powerful force. It’s resistance. Think of it like Pepco. It’s always working against you.”
It’s a Sunday morning in the fall. I’ve come to Zimmerman’s water class because of an injury that has temporarily precluded my high-impact, land-based exercise routine. I’ll return for the cardio and the company of women who know how to laugh and play as if they were still 8 years old.
“It’s the only silly thing I do all week,” says Molly Peter, 60, of Bethesda, a real estate agent. “There is a buoyancy in the whole experience. I just fell in love with it.”
Bethesda interior decorator Robyn Collins, 56, is a founding member of the class, which started meeting when Equinox opened three years ago. Class participants range in age from 28 to 72. “It’s an energizer for me,” Collins says. “It takes me out of my world. Whenever I walk in there in a bad mood, I leave feeling refreshed, clean and happy.”
Zimmerman is the grand master of happy. An area native, she has been a fitness instructor at clubs, gyms and community centers around Bethesda since the 1980s. At 56, she has the lithe build of a college athlete. Sweet, effervescent and down-to-earth, she remembers every student’s name and calls out encouragement throughout class. Zimmerman is also a longtime crossing guard for Chevy Chase Elementary School. She’s known for using her big personality to stop rush-hour traffic on Connecticut Avenue, even on a green light, to give kids safe passage.
Wrangling a pool full of real estate agents, lawyers, lobbyists, federal officials, businesswomen, robust retirees, an artist and a chef is child’s play for Zimmerman. She does, however, go home hoarse some days from yelling over the laughs and splashes.
“Squeeze your buttocks, ladies, and I don’t mean reach around behind you and grab them,” Zimmerman yells. “I mean squeeze them from the inside."
“Remember, you can hire somebody to clean your house. You can hire somebody to wash your car. But you can’t hire someone to squeeze your buttocks from the inside. Personal responsibility, ladies. Personal responsibility.”
Zimmerman is expert at making her light-hearted Aqua Motion class serious exercise. It attracts some accomplished athletes, such as Kathryn Winsberg, 62, of Bethesda, a retired federal lawyer who worked at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and has run a dozen marathons and countless half-marathons in the last 12 years.
“My motto is: ‘Don’t let the pink caps fool you,’ ” says Kathryn Tracy, 50, of Bethesda, who works in federal law enforcement. “People walk into the pool and see these Esther Williams-looking caps and get fooled into thinking this is a geriatric class. My cardio has increased tremendously by taking this class. People don’t realize how much of a workout this can be.”
Several women say they came to the class for exercise, but committed when they realized they’d stumbled into an unlikely community. “I’ve taken a lot of classes in my life, but never felt about one like I do this one,” says Abbe Milstein, 45, of Rockville, a lawyer-turned-stay-at-home mother who recently started Power Up Mont, a volunteer group advocating for better Pepco performance. “I almost feel like I’m letting people down if I don’t make it to class. I want to be part of it. It reminds me of the team camaraderie when I played sports.”
Collins, the group’s unofficial captain, came up with the idea for its unorthodox team uniform. She buys a different hue of flowered swim caps for the group every year and sometimes hands them out at class parties she hosts.
Much like Halloween costumes, the goofy swim caps loosen inhibitions and lighten the mood. They’re equalizers. Young or old, fit or infirm, we all wear them and feel, at least for the moment, as if we’re one. “It’s like a Brownie badge or a sorority pin,” says Sondra Scott, 72, of Bethesda.
Twice in the last three years, participants have worked together to save the class. Equinox management has temporarily reduced the number of times the group meets, from three times weekly to twice, citing budgetary priorities favoring larger classes. Aqua Motion fans have demanded reinstatement.
A class that attracts predominately women over 50 doesn’t fit the image the gym portrays in its slick advertising campaigns, which feature photographs of fit, natty and naughtily posed young people, Peter says. She happens to be the gym member who launched a campaign last year demanding that Equinox remove from the side of its building a billboard depicting a scantily clad young woman crouching, doggie-style, atop a pool table.
“Unlike all that fatuousness, this class is real,” Peter says. “It is about the real robustness of women.”
So, week after week, I wade into the water and out of time.
“Somewhere over the rainbow…,” Zimmerman is singing once again.
Around the pool, floating women wearing flowered swim caps—the young and the old, the fit and the infirm—can’t help but join in. “…bluebirds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow. Why then, oh why can’t I?”
“Why? Why? Oh, why?” Zimmerman ad-libs. “It’s just not fair, is it?”
April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda. To comment on this column or suggest ideas, email april firstname.lastname@example.org.