Every now and again, when she is swimming, someone will ask Diana McCandless what she is training for.

The reply is always the same.

“I am training to swim,” McCandless answers. “It’s its own sport, you know.”

oly ortho logoIt certainly is and McCandless is the one you want to meet if interested in open water swimming locally.

Labeled as “the matriarch of open water swimming in Olympia” by a close friend and fellow swimmer, McCandless is one of the founders of the Western Washington Open Water Swimmers, a club dedicated to swimming outdoor bodies of water whether it be oceans, lakes or rivers.

open water swimming
Western Washington Open Water Swimmers includes (from left) Tiffany Ford, Willow Stockwell, Mike Martens and Diana McCandless.

“Swimming for me is just such a powerful, potent way to feel alive. We are fortunate with all this salt water and all these lakes that you can just drive 15 minutes and pop right in,” McCandless said. “When I am swimming in open water I never feel like I should be doing something else.”

Growing up in Bainbridge Island, it was only natural for McCandless to gravitate toward the water.

“If it was nice day out, you’d always go into the water,” McCandless said about her aquatic upbringing. “I will swim anywhere. It’s not about going from point A to point B as fast as you can, it’s just about being in the water.”

That same outlook has carried over to her open water swimming group, which was formed about six years ago.

Posts on the social media site were normally on a weekly basis and drew the interest of all skill levels of swimmers – from individuals who were making their first trek out into open waters to seasoned triathletes.

One of the early members was Mike Martens, who met McCandless while swimming with the regional masters club at The Evergreen State College.

open water swimming
Open water swimmers go for a swim near Burfoot Park in Boston Harbor.

Unlike McCandless, who had spent a lifetime in the water, Martens, outside basic survival swimming during his younger years, had never been taught proper strokes or techniques.

“My step daughter was involved in the swim team at Black Hills High School,” Martens said. “As a parent, I was sitting on the bleaches, my butt was getting sore and my weight was getting big. One day the coach invited me along. He said, ‘I got a lane here if you want to come in and swim.’ I got in, swam three lengths of the pool, went to the side and was huffing and puffing. I was beat red and the coach said, ‘We have to teach you how to swim.’”

Not long after, Martens started volunteering with the Olympia High School swim team before becoming an assistant coach at Black Hills.

The activity was not only to his liking, it also proved to be life-altering.

“About 10 years ago I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I weighed in at 294 pounds and I started hitting the pool three or four times a week,” Martens said. “I changed my eating plans and within six months I dropped 65 pounds. It’s been four years now. I have my diabetes under control through diet and exercise without having to take any medication. The swimming has been such a huge part of it.”

The open water club proved to be a perfect fit for Martens, who started to grow weary of the pool and started migrating out to places like Long Lake.

Soon the lure of the pool was replaced by open water.

“You didn’t have to fight with anyone, no sharing lanes, no flip turns or any of that other garbage that comes with swimming at the pool,” Martens said. “You can have the worst day at work and when you get out in the water it all goes away. You can’t think of anything else.”

It’s that type of enthusiasm McCandless and Martens bring to their open water group.

“We are just a loose club. If you want to swim, come find us,” said McCandles about her group that has made swims at Mount Rainier, Packwood Lake, Steilacoom, Vashon Island and numerous other locations throughout the Pacific Northwest. “Usually by the time people reach out to us, they want to go in.”

That was the case for Willow Stockwell, who was making her maiden open water swim out of Burfoot Park in mid-July.

open water swimming
The Western Washington Open Water Swimmers is a club dedicated to swimming outdoors, whether it be oceans, lakes or rivers.

“I actually learned to swim at 37 and immediately injured my shoulder. It seemed like I wasn’t going to be able to swim, but I just kept working on it,” Stockwell said. “I enjoy being in the water and I picked it so I can have a sport I can age with.”

A low-impact activity that is both age and body friendly, open water swimming seems to be the perfect fit for that to happen.

“The most incredible swimmer I’ve ever swam with was a 93-year-old woman. I was watching her do the 100 IM. It is just amazing. She is my hero,” Martens said. “That’s going to be me, if I make it that far. I want to be in the water at 80, 90 years old.”

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