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Lake love: Training at Berkeley key for SwimAtlanta

Photo by Christine Troyke

Photo by Christine Troyke

BERKELEY LAKE -- Multiple times during a recent open water training session, Keenan Sweeney tried to snag an elusive turtle with a sudden dive into the water. Each time the teenager failed.

Other SwimAtlanta athletes also have doggedly tried to capture a turtle at Berkeley Lake, to no avail. Leaks in the large earthen dam have tightened the turtles' habitat, not that the lower water level helps swimmers like Sweeney in their pursuit.

"The rule is if you catch a turtle you get to ride in the boat," SwimAtlanta coach Scot Davis said as he steered a pontoon alongside Sweeney and 15 other swimmers from the local club. "So far, nobody's caught a turtle."

"People try to make deals with Scot, that if we catch a turtle we're done," said SwimAtlanta's Elizabeth Freeman, a rising senior at Greater Atlanta Christian. "But it never works."

Turtles, snakes and fish dominate the 77-acre private lake's waters. But they don't swim alone -- at least not in the summers. For more than 20 years, Berkeley Lake has been the ideal haven for SwimAtlanta's open-water workouts, part of the distance training regimen for an organization that has spawned five Olympians.

The centerpiece of what was a 1950s summer retreat before turning residential, the lake is large enough for long practices but small enough that the boat traffic is minimal. And the boats that navigate it must adhere to a 5 mph speed limit.

"We started going to (Lake) Lanier (in 1978), but if you go to Lanier it's an all-day thing," SwimAtlanta founder and coach Chris Davis said. "If you go to Berkeley, it's just a normal practice in the afternoon. It's the perfect location. It's big enough that if you go up and down the channel a few times it's 40 to 50 minutes straight of swimming."

Berkeley Lake has been Davis' home for years, raising his three children in a house not far from where the lake's primary celebrity resident, longtime TV broadcaster Brad Nessler, calls home. His two sons, Duluth grads Chris and Scot, did their share of Berkeley swims during their careers. Both have joined him in coaching at SwimAtlanta, so they guide the boat their father captained for years.

"I did tons of them," Scot Davis said. "One summer we had the Australian National Open Water Team out here. I trained with them some. Those guys would swim four or five hours out here. I didn't go that far with them, but I would do a good three hours."

Only SwimAtlanta's most dedicated swimmers attend the twice weekly sessions at Berkeley, well aware of the work that lies ahead of them. They have the option of putting in long-distance workouts at the club's indoor Sugarloaf pool, but a solid group that averages between 15 and 18 youngsters chooses the open water.

Their sessions feature a variety of swims, with several routes and distances. One exercise has the swimmers racing to the shore, sprinting to the top of Berkeley's manmade beach and returning to finish the set.

By the end of a practice, the swimmers will reach nearly four miles of lake swimming, much of it without stopping. That's a unique aspect of open water swimming -- there's no place to rest.

"It's great for aerobic capacity, it's 30 to 40 minutes straight of never touching the bottom, never pushing off the bottom, never touching the side, never grabbing the lane rope," Chris Davis said. "We used to take a lot more kids, but it got to where a lot of them didn't like lake swims because they couldn't see the bottom. Now we just take the kids that are tough and want to do it."

Those tough kids over the years have featured Olympians like Amanda Weir and Eric Shanteau, as well as college-level swimmers and strong year-round high school athletes. Not all of them have attempted to land a turtle, but all have reaped the rewards from SwimAtlanta's secondary training ground, a quiet lake in suburbia tucked amid thick patches of trees.

"I was the youngest one there when I started doing (Berkeley swims), just because my brother (Will) was doing them," Freeman said. "I was just trying to keep up and I pushed myself harder than I would at a normal practice because I was afraid of falling behind. I think that's stayed with me through today.

"In the lake, it's just one long swim. We don't stop much. That's a big difference from our regular practices. That and being out in the heat makes it harder."