You've heard of endorphins - those "happy chemicals" known to improve mood and and make people cheerful. But what about "endolphins"? For a group of Maui swimmers, it's the secret behind their seemingly never-ending energy and warmhearted spunk.
"I can go through the day and just feel dragged down by work. Then I start swimming and feeling better and all the junk just washes away and, oh boy, I'm in a good mood - it's the endolphins," gushes Janet Mercer.
Known collectively as the Maui Masters, members come from different backgrounds, athletic ability and ages to hang out and socialize - all while getting fit. The one thing they all share is a love for swimming.
Sunday morning swimmers pose for their underwater portrait during one of the group’s weekly excursions along the south Maui coast.
"We get a wide range of people coming out, but it's swimming that ties them all together," says coach Malcolm Cooper, himself a lifelong swimmer and former college All-American.
Anyone age 18 or older can choose from two clubs here on Maui that fall under the Masters umbrella: Maui Masters Swim Club and Valley Isle Masters Swimmers. Sign up for one and get the benefits of both.
"The clubs work together, so we ask that people join one of the two clubs and then you can swim at either club," explains Janet Renner, who launched Valley Isle Master Swimmers in the early 1990s.
Perks include coached workouts and personal instruction, social activities and reserved practice slots at county pools, including sites in Pukalani, Kihei, Wailuku and Kahului. For those who can yank themselves out of bed while the rest of the island sleeps, early bird sessions begin at 5:30 a.m. in Kihei or 6 a.m. in Wailuku.
"When visiting Masters swimmers come to visit, they're amazed at what we have here," says Renner, adding that Maui's top-notch facilities coupled with its natural surroundings are a swimmer's dream.
Don't be fooled - or intimidated - by the term "Masters." The clubs cater to all levels, from competitive triathletes to first-time swimmers. The only prerequisite is to comfortably swim 50 meters without stopping - that's one length down an Olympic-sized pool.
"I know it intimidated me when I first heard the word 'Masters,' especially since I wasn't really a swimmer," says Mercer, who has been with the club for 15 years. "But there's absolutely no pressure - you can decide how much you want to put into it."
Swimmers are grouped by their ability rather than seniority, which means people in their 20s might be in the same lane as swimmers two or three times their age.
"People will try to get in shape before they come here, but the purpose is to come here and we'll help you get in shape," Renner insists.
Often there's just as much mingling as there is exercising, with clusters of swimmers chatting away as they kick and stroke their way down the lane.
"The coaches group you by ability, so you have a kind of camaraderie in your lane ... It's a workout, but there's a whole lot of socializing too," says Christine Andrews.
She adds that this helps build the club's "team mentality."
"Swimming is an individual sport, but the idea of having a Masters team is fun too," she says.
"The philosophy of Masters swimming isn't designed to turn out the best athletes in the world. It's all about getting good aerobic training, improving health and having a good time," he adds.
For those looking to leave the confines of a swimming pool for a high-seas adventure, there's a handful of open ocean races throughout the year.
"Our ocean races are made of a community of people who love the ocean," says Cooper. "We're so lucky with the natural surroundings that we've got here and it's another way to appreciate it."
A crowd favorite is the annual Maui Channel Swim. Notorious for its rough conditions and swift currents, the race begins on Lanai and takes swimmers across the Auau Channel to Black Rock on Kaanapali Beach. The grueling 9.5 mile course is split among a six-person relay team, with each swimmer doing a half-hour leg until all team members have raced. Then, each swimmer completes a 10-minute leg until one of them crosses the finish line.
Another popular race is the 'Aumakua Swim happening Labor Day weekend. The 2.4 mile trek leads swimmers along an oval-shaped course just off the Makena coast. A shorter sprint mile race is also included.
For those who aren't in a rush but still want to enjoy the open ocean, there are the Sunday swims. These unofficial sea expeditions attract anywhere from 12 swimmers on a slow day, to more than 20 when it gets really crowded.
"We'll gather in the parking lot and socialize and chat while we get sunscreen on, get down to the beach, chat some more and talk about how cold the water is. Then we'll start to go in, swim a bit and stop along the way and chat again," jokes Doug Rice, describing the easygoing atmosphere of the Sunday swims.
The usual route begins at the south end of Maluaka Beach (fronting the Maui Prince Hotel) to Puu Olai Beach and back. The nearly 2.5 mile journey takes anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours, depending on the cast of creatures the group encounters along the way. Green sea turtles, dolphins, eels, manta rays, and yes, even the dreaded shark are all part of the scenery during the open ocean swims.
"We have regular gathering spots along the way and if something interesting comes up we'll stop and watch it," Rice explains.
So whether pool practices, ocean races or Sunday swims are your speed, take a dive off the deep end and join this wacky cast of characters. Who knows, maybe you'll catch a jolt of "endolphins" along the way.
Lehia Apana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.