Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Friday, August 03, 2012

That whiff of chlorine

Anytime the summer Olympics roll around, we are inevitably drawn to swimming. This not because either of the parental units were ever competitive swimmers, but because our offspring was. Em joined the swim team at age seven, chiefly because she saw the team practises as she left her preschool programme. This had no parental push: if anything was pushed, it was ballet, pushed by Mom.

Somewhere around age nine or ten, some switch clicked over, and Em's casual interest became a serious commitment. The team, which had had a strictly intermural schedule, began to explore USA Swimming. That's the national organisation that connects with the international organisation. The rules by which ten-year-olds swim are exactly the same as those by which Olympians swim. It's the first step on a very long ladder. That she shared a surname with a successful Olympic swimmer added motivation.

Em applied to swimming her particular genius, a genius that is important but undervalued. It's not intellectual brilliance, not "natural" athletic talent. It is a capacity for sustained hard work. From the moment the switch turned, she worked at both swimming and schoolwork at a depth that never ceased to astound me. Genetics cheated her: she didn't have the height, or the extremities, to match her ambitions. Her feet were three sizes too small for swimming excellence, but her heart was three sizes too large.

Meanwhile, her parents had discovered the grim reality of swimming parents: except for the brief moments when your child is in the pool, watching paint dry is way more exciting. My wife is never at a loss when she has a book and a place to sit, but I needed more to assuage boredom. This made me open to pitches to become an official. At least one had something to do during meets. Being an official made one vulnerable to becoming a nationally-ranked official, which I did. All this meant was that one had to trade comfortable Tevas for sneakers and socks, which became sopping wet in a single session, and that one had to tuck one's white shirt in one's pants. This is not so comfortable at an outdoor pool in 90 degree heat.

At least when I was doing it, USA Swimming hermetically sealed parents away from swimmers and officials, who are as beloved by fans as baseball umpires. Just as well: swim parents can be the ugliest of sports parents, especially those who have bought into the fantasy that their kid could get full athletic scholarships just by showing up.

But Em went to college outside New England, so my task was done when she left high school. She wasn't recruited at IC: she went for the education and was a team walk-on, and she was proud of that. At first, it seemed that Em was happy to have us totally out of the equation, but at the end of her first college season, the quiet question came: did we think we could come for her conference championship? We did think and we went.

There is a pace and immediacy to college swimming that age group swimming lacks. With a definite team affiliation, we weren't bored.

From age 12, Em's trump card in swimming was power, swimming 200s and the 500 freestyle in meets from age 12. We were startled to find that she was usually scheduled to swim the 200 butterfly and the 1000 yard free (1650 in championships) in the same session. There is no more grueling pair in swimming. No one else could or would do this; she did. She wasn't expected to win, just to score...and to pull a rabbit out of her hat when needed and score impossible points. It was neat to see her on the podium, but it was even better to see the strength of the friendships she had formed, and the respect she had earned for what she could contribute.

We went to all the championships after that, and a couple of dual meets as well. The smell of the chlorine, the humidity, the singular camaraderie of swimmers on deck, are now implanted in our DNA. It was something of a retirement for us, and it brought us into touch with other parents who has walked the same road.

On NBC you don't hear anything except the scripted statements of the swimmers. Underneath that is a heart-rending concern. I had heard it once from Em, and at the college level I heard from numbers of parents that they had heard it too. The greatest fear of these immensely talented young athletes was not failure in the pool, it was disappointing their parents. This anxiety was proof against every reassurance parental love could provide. I can't watch Olympic swimming now without wondering how deeply that anxiety is buried in these kids.

There are swimmers who go to the Olympics and never get a shot at a medal. All they do is swim relay prelims well enough to get the team a good lane assignment in finals. There are also fools who wonder if doing that is worth it all. I think of Em's unforgettable valedictory when she had swum her last college meet:

"How lucky I am, to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."

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