A group in Gaithersburg has just swum past Dover and is heading across the English Channel to Normandy. They haven't left the Gaithersburg Aquatic Center, though, since in fact they are going a comparable distance by swimming lengths of the pool and loggin their progress as they "reach" each city along the way.

Meanwhile, at the Fairfax County YWCA adults who have spent years convincing themselves they are incapable of floating are overcoming their fears of the water in a class designed for the "absolutely terrified." And in a parent-child Water Babies program there, tykes are getting their toes wet well before their first birthday.

There are different strokes for different folks and enough pools in the area to accomodate everyone from the daily lap-swimmer to the general splish-splasher. "Swimming has the advantage of using every muscle in the body," says Lynn Alexander, who coordinates the English Channel and other special programs at the Gaithersburg pool. "It helps your heart and your breathing and you can do it your whole life."

One woman at the Metropolitan YMCA, who "feels funny" when she hasn't swum for a week, cites mental benefits as her main impetus: "If I'm tense, I get in the water and grind things out. I come out of the pool and I'm all grins."

The pools listed below are open to the public and are Y- or community-run. Most offer classes that begin in January for all ages and all levels of skill. They also divide their hours of operation into "Adults Only" and general recreational swim times, so call ahead before you put on your suit to make sure you can make the plunge. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Matthew Lewis.