Neither snow, nor cold nor early morning darkness can deter a group of swimmers who show up at 5 a.m. most days at the YMCA pool. Ranging in age from 49 to 84, they are aquatic "birds of a feather."
A cluster of yellow duck toys bobs cheerfully atop the water for the 30 minutes their human counterparts are in the pool. Each bears the name of a swimmer - "Sam" (Clyde King), Marie (Anderson), Paula (Melroy), Hank (Elchert), Gary (Dickerson), Don (Hutzel), Veronica (Nowakowski) and a few others.
King, who started King's Glass Engraving 65 years ago, still works five days a week at the shop, now run by his son. He used to walk on the track at the Y, but he developed pain from so much sitting and bending over his work. Swimming has been a good way to keep his legs from hurting.
In the summer, he also golfs two mornings a week with "the old people" in the retirees league at Seneca Hills. When King moved his workout to the pool, an employee, Ruthie Kin, presented him with the two largest ducks.
"She brought me these two ducks. My friends call me Sam, so I put these names on them. I brought them in every morning and put them in above the water intake there. They'd float all the way up this corner in about 10 or 15 minutes. They'd go over to this lane here," he said.
"Hank always swam in this lane and, just before he'd quit, he'd carry them back down on the (kick)board. Then a couple years later, another woman joined us. One time I made my lap and turned around. There were eight little ones behind the two big ones," King said.
As more swimmers came into the group, a name appeared on each duck.
King called the "Herman" duck a mystery, because he did not know of a swimmer by that name. Ruth, Shirley and Sue have stopped coming, but their ducks remain with the others in their memory.
"Hank and me don't have too much hair, and we got another man we always kid in the locker room ... His name's Don, so I put hair on his duck," King said.
King said he tosses the ducks in the pool every morning and Elchert or Anderson will round them up before they leave. When neither is there, King has to retrieve them himself.
One Friday, a duck was abandoned in the pool until Monday.
The swimmers also have been known to float toy boats.
"Diana Wise was in here for a good many years. She loved that," Elchert said.
King's baggy swim trunks also have been a source of humor. One morning, he called out, "Ladies, have you seen my trunks?"
The next day, Anderson brought him some suspenders, which he wears in the pool every day.
"We have fun together," King said.
Elchert said he has lost count of the number of years he and King have been doing daily laps together.
Elchert began coming to the Y to play basketball in 1985. Years later, he had to find a workout that was kinder to his bones. His physical therapist helped Elchert to recover from injuries and advised him to trade running for swimming. He estimates accompanying King in the lanes for at least 15 years.
"We're good companions," Elchert said. "We come together and it encourages us to be here. If I'm not here two days, this man calls up wanting to know if I'm sick. He's a caring man."
Marie Anderson and Paula Melroy swim for about 20 minutes Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
"I've been coming for 26 years. If I didn't do it in the morning, it wouldn't get done," she said just before hurrying off to work.
Anderson said she moved to Tiffin 15 years ago and has been coming for workouts a the Y for nine years.
When flooding closed the facility last February, Anderson kept swimming at the Y in Fremont, where she works. She continued her classes at St. Paul Church downtown, and tried out the cybex machine when the wellness center re-opened in Tiffin.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, Anderson does spinning instead of swimming, but she likes the boost she gets from the early laps in the pool.
"I'm always tempted to stay in and sleep, but then I just drag the rest of the day. It gives me a lot of energy for the day. I appreciate that more than the extra sleep," she said.
She echoed Elchert's sentiments about looking out for one another.
When Shirley had to stop coming, everyone was asking about her. They learned Shirley had a shoulder injury and has not been able to work out.
Gary Dickerson, who teaches at Heidelberg University, solved the "Herman" mystery by explaining he "sneaked in" that duck for his grandson.
Besides playing basketball three days a week since 1984, he added swimming 30 minutes every weekday more than three years ago to stay in shape for basketball. Soon after, his name turned up on a duck. Whenever he comes late or is absent, everyone gives him a hard time.
"It's a good way to relax early in the morning, and I enjoy the routine. I feel bad if I don't go," Dickerson said. "I've known Hank and Clyde outside of the pool for years."
Sister Veronica Nowakowski swims every morning for about 30 minutes, usually sharing a lane with Melroy. She started in 1980 when the the YMCA moved from its downtown building to the current location.
"I won a door prize to use this (full-service locker room). Then, you had to pay extra. I was so thrilled," Nowakowski said. "I used to stand out there before it opened at 5 and do exercises to warm up."
While the YMCA pool was closed for repairs, Nowakowski compensated with yoga and other activities at the convent and the "Have a Seat" fitness class at the Y twice a week. She remembered looking in to check the progress in the pool. When the pool on the St. Francis campus opened for the summer, she swam there.
"I didn't go too often. I remember how cold it was," Nowakowski said.
Even after the Y pool finally did re-open, the swimmer friends occasionally were turned away due to unbalanced chemicals or some other problem. When that happened, Nowakowski would stay and walk on the track.
"Clyde and his ducks would go home," she said.
Lifeguard Paul Fortney has the early pool shift on weekdays. The swimmers greet him, and he knows their names.
He has noticed Elchert passes his kickboard to Marie at the end of his laps. The camaraderie makes for a pleasant atmosphere.
"I love watching them," Fortney said. "They've got their own thing going on."