tampabay.com

Fired up for cool workout

By TAMARA EL-KHOURY
Published May 7, 2007


PALM HARBOR - Above pool level, the Swimming Dragons appear to be nothing more than bobbing heads, laughing and joking as the sun sets.

But beneath the surface, arms and legs work using moves inspired by kung fu and tai chi, against the resistance of the water. The water massages their bodies, improving blood circulation.

Toes grip the floor of the pool, trying to keep the body from floating.

And the head dragon tells his students to "be like a mountain, move like a dragon."

This is Swimming Dragons, the most popular class at the Greater Palm Harbor YMCA and one that isn't found at any other branch of the YMCA of the Suncoast, which serves North Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

That's because the group's instructor, George Doumanian, 57, stumbled upon the exercise two years ago in his personal pool. A martial arts practitioner for 40 years, Doumanian began performing kung fu moves in the water and found the exercise very effective. His martial arts teacher told him the exercise was called Swimming Dragons in China.

Doumanian brought his experience to the Y, where he is a personal trainer and teaches group fitness classes.

As he works a class of 15 last week, he stresses breathing, stability and balance. His students, mostly baby boomers, suffer from joint and back problems. Putting the exercises in the water alleviates the stress on the joints.

"I get in the water and I think I am an athlete again, " says Joyce Hayes, 74, of Oldsmar, who came to Swimming Dragons class from the golf course.

She can do things in the water that she couldn't possibly do on land, she says.

Doumanian orders his students to push their arms out in front of them and pull them back. He tells them to kick "like a Rockette" and move their leg in little circles, as if they are stirring a cup of herbal tea.

One of the many inside jokes among this bunch: Some class members are stirring margaritas.

Okay, it looks like water ballet, admits John Hesting, 36, a Palm Harbor resident who said the class is great for the rehabilitation of his hip after hip replacement surgery.

"But when you get out of the pool, you say, 'Oh, wow. I've been working out for an hour, ' " he says.

The camaraderie in this group has resulted in two parties outside of class.

During the nonstop workout, Doumanian jokes and throws out tidbits of Chinese philosophy.

"What do the Chinese say?" Doumanian asks.

"Short breath, short life, " they respond.

To cool down, to calm their chi, the students perform a move called "Dragon Goes to Sea, " where they run in place and moved their arms almost like a dog-paddle.

Then they put both hands out, plant their feet in place and slowly drag their arms from side to side. This is called "Dragon Whips Tail."

Olly Gardner, who takes the class with his wife, gets out of the pool at the end of class.

"I'm 82 years old, doing this silly nonsense, " he jokes.

But he'll be back. His wife, Vicky, says they come to class three times a week and are aiming for five.

Fast Facts:

Swimming Dragons

Classes: 7 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 11 a.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The public can try a class for free today through May 12.

Where: Greater Palm Harbor YMCA at 1600 16th St., Palm Harbor.

For more information: Call (727) 787-9622.