Unsung Hero: Portland YMCA's Terry Swain proves good guys do finish last

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PORTLAND — In a sports-mad society where winning matters most, colleges give coaches multi-million dollar contracts, and 30-second Super Bowl spots sell for $4 million, it’s refreshing to meet a person like Terry Swain, aquatics director for the YMCA of Southern Maine.

Swain, you see, trains hard for endurance races and then intentionally comes in last.

Every time.

Every race.

Swain, who majored in recreation management at the University of Maine at Machias, came to the YMCA in 2002 after four years at the YWCA and, before that, working 20 years as a landscaper.

Her duties as aquatics director run the gamut: teaching swimming lessons, leading aerobics classes, organizing splash parties, and heading the arthritis program, among others.

“Every hour is different,” said Swain, who basically lives at the YMCA. “The challenge is to balance work life with home life.”

Swain also has a passion for teaching kids how to swim.

“Learning how to swim allows kids to be safe around all of the shorelines, beaches, lakes, rivers, pools and water parks we have in Maine,” she said. “It is a valuable skill that can be enjoyed throughout life.

“I have seen many children through the many years I’ve been teaching, some of whom have come back to work for me as lifeguards and swim instructors.”

Interestingly, Swain did not swim in high school or college, although she did play several other sports along the way, including field hockey, basketball, softball and track.

She is equally passionate about encouraging people of all ages to challenge themselves by participating in endurance events. Since 2006, she has organized the YMCA Peaks to Portland Swim, an event that originated 33 years ago. She knows that many people don’t want to take on such a challenge for fear they’ll embarrass themselves by coming in last.

So Swain decided that she’d solve that problem by deliberately coming in last. She tells people training for their first Peaks to Portland Swim that if they participate in training classes, she’ll get them through the race, and she guarantees they won’t finish last.

“Each session will build upon the previous session,” she explained, “helping swimmers gain strength and stamina and prepare for the ocean swim.”

Swain said the Peaks to Portland Swim has been a social event for her the last few years. “I encourage the swimmers, thank the kayakers and say ‘hello’ to the lobstermen,” she said. “I have a blast.”

This year, the YMCA will launch the Endurance Series, composed of three special endurance events: The Tri for the Y on Sunday, May 18, the YMCA Peaks to Portland Swim on Saturday, July 12, and the Mainiac Triathlon & Duathlon on Sunday, Sept. 14.

The Endurance Series is a major fundraising event for the Y: the Tri for the Y will support the Summer Day Camp programs, the Peaks to Portland Swim will support youth aquatics programs, such as swim lessons and swim team, and the Mainiac Tri & Duathlon will support child-care programs.

For more information, go to ymcaofsouthernmaine.org/enduranceseries.

Sidebar Elements

Terry Swain, aquatics director at the YMCA of Southern Maine, is passionate about swimming.

Unsung Heroes

One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: heroes@theforecaster.net.