The sun's first rays gently filtered through the towering windows at Fairland Sports and Aquatics Complex on Old Gunpowder Road in West Laurel. Outside, most of the parking spots reserved for vehicles with disability placards were taken. Inside, in yeoman-like fashion, a small group of determined individuals glided effortlessly in waist-deep water.
This was a Tuesday gathering of the early-morning water walking group at the popular facility. An informal, open-door policy is its hallmark; the only required dues are the ones paid to join the pool itself. The members motivated enough to show up even on dark, sub-freezing January mornings all share one goal: To combine physical workouts while fulfilling the human need for socialization. The daily meetings all convene in three-feet of glistening water in the shallow pool at the sprawling athletic facility.
For Ruth Anne McCormick, water walking with others "is a great way to start your day." McCormick, who said she's "60 plus," has struggled with physical ailments, which was a daily reminder that she knew it was time to start an exercise program. She started water walking four times a week, eventually pushing it up to five, even six, she said.
McCormick, of Silver Spring, works as a project coordinator at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Stopping at Fairland "works out perfectly," she declared. "Most of us have had some physical problems. That's why we're here."
There's also an educational component to the ritual, she added. With companions like George in the water, "I've learned a lot about trucks."
George would be George Wills. The South Laurel resident, 69, is a self-employed contractor. He's been hanging out at Fairland for close to a decade, he said. Originally, he would come out after work at 4 or 5 in the afternoon. But as he has throttled back his time on the job, he's "more flexible" now, and likes water walking first thing in the morning. His doctor, he said, recommended water walking "as the best thing I could ever do," to combat his hypertension and arthritis.
Walking with new friends and acquaintances, he said, gives the experience special meaning.
"The group is a lot of fun," said Willis, who grew up in Laurel and wrestled at Laurel High School. "There's no subject we can't talk about that offends, like religion or politics," he joked. "If it gets out of hand, I give the timeout sign," he explained, motioning with his hands. "This gives me friends outside of my family."
If Wills happens to miss a day at the pool, for example when it's closed in order to host a swim meet, it takes a day until his body tells him he's out of sorts. out of his routine.
As the seniors sloshed north to south and back again in a repetitive movements interlaced with bursts of laughter, the lifeguard overseeing them, Pierre Raymond, shook his head in amazement.
"They're here every day at 6 o'clock in the morning, on the dot," he said, gripping his long red lifeguard floating rescue tube. "They've really got to have drive and ambition to come out here. It's a good way to keep the body warm." Raymond said he loves the way "they all come out here and say `good morning' all in unison. It's real cute."
Another walker, Mary Spears, of West Laurel, said "This is a great start to the day. I've made some wonderful friends. My body knows when I miss it."
When it comes to aerobic exercise, the water is the place to do it, confirmed Sam Sydney, an orthopedic surgeon in Columbia.
"Water aerobics allows for decreased joint impact and provides the ability to maintain joint mobility," said Sydney, a partner in Orthopaedic Associates of Central Maryland, which specializes in knee, hip and shoulder surgery. "It is better than walking on the ground. It has no impact on your joints, which makes it the perfect exercise for all," he said.
According to Robert Wilder, a physician and director of sports rehabilitation at the University of Virginia, water walking forces you to labor more against the resistance of water. Water, he said, is 800 times denser than air. It helps build muscle and improves cardiovascular health.
Website livestrong.com reports water walking burns 563 calories per hour for a 155-pound person, and 654 calories per hour for a someone weighing 180 pounds. Plus, water-running burns 11.5 calories per minute versus the eight calories per minute burned while running on hard ground.
While the group members at Fairland get along swimmingly, mixing sparkling water and sparkling wit, some opt out of the group effort. Instead, they step out as solo acts in parallel lanes.
"I like to socialize and meet people," promised Christine Otvos, "but I want to do my exercise and get it done.
If she remains at the more leisurely pace that others set, she said, then she doesn't get her heart rate up.
Another woman who tends to go it alone is Lori Stewart. The West Laurel resident, at 54 one of the youngest present on this particular morning, said water walking occupies an important place in her life. But, unlike most of the others who take a kind of rhythmic, pack mentality approach, she breaks off and varies her routine.
"I do more jogging in the water than walking," she said, adding that she also likes to walk sideways. "Half-an-hour in the water equals two hours on land." But she remains open-minded about the future. "I wouldn't mind walking with them," said Stewart, who has battled back surgery and cancer. "Sometimes were in the same stride."
The friendships forged and cultivated at the pool are air-tight — not the watered-down versions. As proof, Wills pointed out that if one of the members fails to show up for the daily walk, "we text each other, asking `are you all right? Everything good?'"
McCormick said the fun often continues after the exercising. Group members would reassemble at places like the now-closed Silver Diner. Looney's Pub in Maple Lawn is another big attraction, she said. "If we don't see people, we send e-mails."
Owen McPherson, the general manager of the facility, said other aquatic groups also make sure to incorporate after-hours get togethers into their schedules. However, at the same time, they are mindful of the clock.
"They want to be off the roads by 3 o'clock," McPherson said. "That's when the crazies get on the road, they say.
Their positive energy never ceases to amaze him, he said.
"It's extremely social: They will get up, drive, catch a ride, take Metro Access," McPherson said. "These guys are exercising together. It's a wonderful thing."