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Laps count, but so do smiles

Despite the edgy name, the Mavericks swim club is a supportive group that advocates exercise and enjoying life. Oh - and swimming . . . lots of swimming.

Published December 23, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Two years ago, Paul Hutinger suffered a stroke. He recovered with no paralysis or loss of mobility, something his doctors credit to a strict aquatic regimen, a regimen that began when he was 15.

Today, at 79, Hutinger is in good health and swims four or five days a week. He has won so many races, set so many records and helped so many swimmers that he'll be inducted in January into the World Masters Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale.

Hutinger is also the mastermind behind the Florida Maverick Masters Inc., a club for seniors who enjoy swimming and socializing and who work hard at staying fit.

He and six other swimmers, including his wife Margie, founded the group in 1996.

The Mavericks are one of the most formidable swim clubs for seniors in the United States, and they have the trophies and speed records to prove it. (See accompanying story.)

But competition is just one way this group shines. Members place a premium on maintaining their health and enjoying life.

"We wanted more from a club than exercise and an occasional race," he said. "We wanted to create a family atmosphere for retired people around a common love for swimming, and we didn't want to limit the membership to people in the neighborhood. Basically, we wanted to have fun with friends, maintain good health and improve as competitive swimmers."

Club members live in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa and other cities inside and outside of Florida.

One of the founders, Doris Prokopi, 68, of Land O'Lakes had been swimming for two years when the group formed.

"The club I was with before had more than 300 members, and most were very young," she said. "I wanted to enjoy my newfound sport with people my age, and I wanted more social life than the other team provided."

Some of the members do not compete, but they enjoy being part of a swim club.

Dakota Eliason, 73, of St. Petersburg is one of those members.

"Paul has helped me to improve my stroke, but I really don't care how fast anybody swims," she said. "I don't even care how fast I swim, even though I swim 3 to 4 miles a week. It is good for my circulation, and it makes me feel good. Plus, as a member of a masters club, I can swim at the North Shore Pool at 7 a.m. Otherwise I have to wait until 9 a.m. when it gets hot.

"I like the name of the club, too," she added. "I am kind of a maverick myself."

Margie Hutinger produces the club's monthly newsletter and encourages members to stay in touch through e-mail. The membership has grown from seven to 60 in seven years, and another 30 to 50 subscribe to the monthly newsletter that has exercise programs developed by Hutinger.

In the club newsletter, Paul Hutinger writes a column called Health Tip of the Month and helps readers set up comfortable pool exercise programs.

Hutinger is qualified to provide exercise tips. He earned a bachelor's degree in physical education at the University of Iowa while competing with the Hawkeyes men's swim team; he later earned a doctorate in exercise physiology from Indiana University.

He was a professor at Western Illinois University for 28 years and helped pioneer new areas of fitness and physiology, including concepts that he said have since become part of many colleges' sports medicine degree programs.

Members of a masters swim club don't have to compete or be champion swimmers. Any swimmer 19 or over at any skill level can become a masters swimmer. There is no testing, just a registration form and a fee, and people with disabilities can compete. Currently, two members of the club are working to overcome serious physical problems - one a stroke and the other polio.

Members of the Mavericks pay an annual fee of $35. From the fee, $20 goes to the national masters group and $8 goes to Florida Masters Swimming. The remainder is used by the club, primarily for newsletter postage.

"These (Mavericks) are the greatest people in the world," club member and founder Doris Prokopi said. "We travel to meets together and have dinner together. My life is more fun now. That is what I wanted when we started, and I have it."

"I have also won several hundred gold medals in the past seven years."

-- Anyone over 50 interested in challenging some the world's best swimmers, or just having fun getting healthy, may call (727) 521-1172 for more information about the Mavericks.

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