At the blast of a whistle, half a dozen teen-age girls in black swimsuits hit the water in unison and threshed full speed to the far end of the pool. There—reaching up the ledge—they snatched toy balloons, blew air into them until the balloons burst and then freestyled it back to the whistle blower at the starting point for the next exercise and the next and next.
Whistle-blowing Coach Stan Tinkham has enough muscle-and lung-developing exercises to keep his pupils busy all morning and all afternoon, 365 days a year. As coach of the Walter Reed Swim Club of Washington, D.C. for the past two seasons, husky, 23-year-old Stan Tinkham has seen his methods produce champions. His Walter Reed team, composed mostly of teen-agers and including such bright particular stars as Shelley Mann, Betty Mullen and Mary Jane Sears, swept the AAU indoor championships this spring and is an overwhelming favorite to win the outdoor title in Philadelphia this week.
Walter Reed currently holds three world and 23 American records. They are gradually erasing marks set a decade or more ago by the likes of Ann Curtis and Gloria Callen, and with Tinkham driving them to the point of exhaustion in daily workouts the year round, they are improving all the time. So good is the 1955 Reed team that some of its members are closing in on records only recently established by Mary Freeman and Gail Peters, former Reed stars who helped bring the team into national prominence several years ago.
A girl who wants to swim seriously for Walter Reed must forgo a lot of self-indulgences. The training diet is strict—no cokes, pies or banana splits. Bedtime is 9:30; hence dates are rationed. Practice is scheduled for 7 a.m. so that the girls can get an hour of work before school. The girls appear promptly, swim 20 laps just to warm up, then swim some more, using practically every stroke in the book.
If the Tinkham regimen is severe, his answer could well be: the girls are volunteers—and they want to be champions. Four months before each of the year's two big meets—the indoor and outdoor nationals—Tinkham starts building up the training pace. Daily workouts stress conditioning exercises to melt teen-age fat off hips and water games to build muscle tone and coordination.
In the third month, workouts are stepped up to two a day, featuring tortuous wind sprints in seven-lap cycles. The girls swim each lap differently but always at a sprint clip. After loafing for a few laps, they start another seven-lap cycle. Three or four cycles a session leave the girls gasping by the side of the pool. As the big days approach, Tinkham eases off on the drudgery, takes stop watch in hand and races his youngsters.
Realizing the danger of all work and no play, Tinkham sugar-coats the pill with trick relays. Even these are rugged.
One finds a girl swimming the length of the pool towing two others. The middle girl in the chain is underwater most of the trip. Then they switch positions and start back.
Tinkham, a onetime University of North Carolina swimmer, has been eminently successful in handling his potentially volatile young champions. Blowups are rare. He seldom raises his voice, acts more like an older brother than a coach. When at a meet, he not only follows their training rules but he goes along on such relaxations as roller-coaster rides and the like. He shuns credit after Walter Reed victories. "The girls worked hard," he'll say.
The Walter Reed Swim Club is sponsored by the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center, though membership is not restricted to Army families. Tinkham was an Army private swimming for the men's division of the club when the club's former coach, Jim Campbell, quit in a feud with the local AAU on the eve of the 1954 indoor nationals. A fair swimmer in his college days at North Carolina, he took Campbell's place reluctantly, settled his nervous stars with quiet soothing words and won a championship. Many of the Reed stars were developed by Campbell, and Tinkham admits it ("I walked into a good thing"), but under his quietly effective coaching the stars have improved and new ones have blossomed. The work is incredibly rugged, but the girls of Walter Reed can always look forward to a tension-relaxer when they win. They pick up Stan Tinkham and toss him into the pool.