Photos by Skip Brown

At 5:25 on a muggy morning this past June, 25 swimmers streamed into the Old Farm Swim & Paddle Tennis Club in Rockville, depositing fins and water bottles at the end of lanes at the pool and pulling on swim caps. Some talked about the previous weekend’s half Ironman in Cambridge, Maryland. Others stopped to pet a friendly yellow Lab the regulars have nicknamed “Coach Willy.” Two people new to practice checked in with Willy’s owner, Christina Dorrer, a professional coach certified by Ironman, USA Triathlon and USA Cycling. 

Dorrer, a five-time All-American triathlete and 2017 Ironman Gold All-World Athlete, would fit in her own swim on another day. Newer trainees—and those taking it easy following the half Ironman—were in the left lanes, the more experienced swimmers to the right. For 75 minutes, Dorrer, 44, walked along the pool’s edge, tweaking swimmers’ forms, writing stroke instructions on whiteboards, and counting to help swimmers space themselves in the lanes. Coach Willy barked along to the numbers. 

Many of the swimmers were in their late-40s and 50s and 60s, reflecting a national triathlon trend. According to Ironman organizers, since 2013, the number of men and women ages 50-plus participating in the Ironman 70.3-mile distance (half Ironman) has more than doubled.

For most in this group, swimming is the most daunting part. The swimming portion of a half Ironman is 1.2 miles (about 2,000 meters or 40 laps in the pool). A 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run follow. 

Ying Long Ford of Clarksburg had run 15 marathons and one ultramarathon—the Stone Mill 50-miler on the Seneca  Greenway and Muddy Branch trails—before signing up for Dorrer’s training. She wanted to challenge herself, right around her 50th birthday this past September, and do her first half Ironman in Atlantic City. But in September 2016 at Georgetown Prep, the first time Ford swam in a lane at one of Dorrer’s sessions, she noticed the water getting progressively deeper, panicked and clung to a lane divider. “At the beginning, I [could] only finish half of Christina’s workout,” recalls Ford, who would also practice five more times a week on her own. 

More challenging still is the open-water environment a race requires. “When you look at the pool and you look at the end of the lane, for most people it looks very doable,” Dorrer says. “But when they see buoys stretching out a mile or more in the open water, it looks far. They say, ‘Oh my God, Christina, I can’t swim that far,’ and I say, ‘Yes. Yes you can, you really can. You have done that distance twice a week for so many weeks—just take it one buoy at a time.’ That’s the hardest thing—to convince somebody that they can actually do something.”