Coach Lloyd Henry gives out the practice list during a swim class offered by OnPoint Fitness. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

It was Tuesday night, and for members of OnPoint Fitness , it was time to swim.

At the Takoma Aquatic Center in Northwest Washington, a group of adults donned swimsuits, caps and goggles and jumped into the pool. Lap after lap, each was on a personal journey to being a triathlete.

Coach Lloyd Henry instructed his students to lengthen their stroke and be aware of how their hands enter the water.

Two of Henry’s students were preparing to be among the nearly 3,500 competitors in the Nation’s Triathlon, including Ted Brady, 48, of the District, who was training for the Olympic category. The swim course is nearly a mile long in the Potomac River.

Dionne Crawford, and Karen King de Leon, 49, both from Bowie, were in recovery mode after their succcessful completion of the Iron Girl sprint triathlon in Columbia, Md., in August, which included a 0.62-mile swim.

Dionne Crawford of Bowie, bottom, and Karen de Leon of Bowie swim laps during a class offered by OnPoint Fitness. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Watching them a few weeks ago, it was hard to believe that until last year, Brady hadn’t swum in decades. When they started the swimming course in February, Crawford and de Leon didn’t know how to swim. In fact, six members of this group didn’t know how to swim when they began Henry’s class.

Yet, here they were, swimming more than a mile in the course of an hour.


Learning the three disciplines of the triathlon can be an arduous task. In particular for first-timers, swimming can be the hardest of the three.

“Conceptually, in their mind’s eye, they think, ‘I haven’t ridden a bike since I was a kid, but I can figure that out,’ ” said Henry, an accomplished triathlete who founded OnPoint Fitness in 2004. “For the run, in a worst-case scenario, they can walk the run portion of the race.

“But the swim, if you can’t get that done, you can’t continue in the other parts.”

Crawford, a podiatrist who after turning 40 last year went from couch potato to 10-mile runner in three months, took on swimming with the attitude of most adult beginners: absolute dread.

Thomas Brady of the District, right, talks with coach Lloyd Henry about his stroke after a swim class. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

“The first thing I had to try to do is swim the whole length of the pool. I told [Henry] I knew how to float, do the ‘backyard’ swimming, but didn’t know how to swim-swim,” she said. “It was a complete mess. I was just pretty much beating water, trying to stay afloat.”

Crawford said she particularly struggled with breathing to the side and staying balanced, a part of swimming Henry said most have to grapple with when they begin his class. It’s all part of learning how to swim-swim.

Amping up

“I’m amazed that I can actually swim!”

Brady was taking his training laps in stride.

“I don’t have the conditioning or youthfulness of some others. But it’s nice to glide through the water and feel I’m swimming and not just avoiding drowning,” Brady told me at the practice.

Brady’s journey started four years ago. When he realized he needed to lose weight and be active to keep up with Graysen, his son, he took to running. After he took Henry’s Chi Running class in 2014, Henry asked him whether he was interested in triathlons.

“Coach asked me, ‘Can you swim the length of a pool?’ I said, ‘A short pool!’”

De Leon, who said she signed up for the Iron Girl race because her friends were competing and she liked the event logo (“It’s pink and cute!”), realized she needed someone to, as she put it, “fix me” after a not-so-great performance at her first triathlon earlier in the summer.

“I needed to amp up my game,” de Leon said. “I was willing to train twice a day, six days a week.”

To be sure, training for a triathlon at any age is a major investment of time, energy and money. For working adults with families, it’s even more difficult. The advantage to training with others is the support to push through the difficult parts.

“Many days, I’m crying, thinking, ‘What I have signed up for?’ ” de Leon said. “Then you have this team, we’re pushing each other, but we’re supporting each other.”

Open water

The final part of the swimming lessons is facing the open water. Henry said that once swimmers are mentally prepared to be in motion for 15 to 20 minutes without stopping, it’s a good time to throw them into the deep end, as it were.

“In open water, you don’t have any place to stand or hang on to. We want to make sure that mentally, you believe you can make it back to shore or the kayak or the wharf, because physically you may be able to do it, but your brain has to believe it as well.”

Crawford recounted her first attempt at open-water swimming, in the Potomac at National Harbor. It took about 20 minutes for her to mentally engage and get in.

“I really thought I was going to have a panic attack in the water. It was the scariest moment of my life. I got around the buoys one time. I was on my back a lot of the time.”

But she made it. Even just with that one open-water swim, Crawford went to Columbia’s Centennial Lake in August and overcame her initial anxieties to finish the swim and the Iron Girl triathlon.

“I just took a breath and said, ‘Dionne, you do know how to swim,’ remembering all the technique that Coach Lloyd taught, and yeah, I was able to get around without an issue,” Crawford said.

Brady completed the Nation’s Tri a few weeks later, having invited his son to run the last few meters with him. He told me he struggled the first 100 meters of the swim, then felt a sense of calm. He said he was confident in his training and grateful for the chance to compete.

“It was a good finish,” Brady said. “That’s all I wanted. A good finish.”

@mjmplunkett on Twitter

Triathlon programs

The key to learning the triathlon disciplines, especially learning to swim, is finding a good coach and a team for support. In our area, here are a few options:

OnPoint Fitness: Swims, bikes and runs are in the District.

Tri Team Z (Coach Ed Zerkle): Swims, bikes and runs are in Virginia.

D.C. Triathlon Club:

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