Monday, December 12, 2016

Pooling Your Talents

An Inundation in the World of Self-Competitive Swimming

Selections from the Medals and Ribbons shoebox.
Selections from the Medals and Ribbons shoebox.

An Almost Amphibious Childhood

Twenty years ago, on my 9th birthday, I swam in the state meet at the University of Minnesota. It was the end of my first season representing the Northwest YMCA’s Marlin swim team, and probably the high point of my competitive swimming career. In individual events, I placed fourth in the 25-yard freestyle. My 4×25 freestyle relay team earned all of us a first-place medal.

How did I swim as a 9-year-old? Full of energy and full of dreams. My arms windmilled through the pool as I breathed every eight strokes while going at full blast. I watched the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, wearing a shirt that read “No Pain, No Spain.” The ’96 games would be in Atlanta, and I so badly wanted to be right there with them.

You can dream this when you’re a decade old because you don’t yet know that Olympic athletes spend their entire lives training to get there and are usually born with natural abilities or freakish bodies beneficial to sport. If nothing else, their intense training starts with experts at an early age. I wasn’t even on the most competitive swim team in the metro.

I continued to swim on the team through sixth grade, though my participation during that year greatly diminished. I don’t remember the exact cause of my disinterest, but I suspect puberty helped, as I suddenly became more interested in watching “Baywatch” at home rather than swimming in meets. The final blow was in the summer before seventh grade, when I learned that if I wanted to sign up for the middle school swim team I would have to practice four hours a day. I decided to flounder in volleyball and, later, tennis. I was a completely content Junior Varsity member of the Nordic ski team for six years. I never considered myself an athlete, and I never wore a letter jacket. I participated because it was fun.

In college I rarely exercised on purpose; instead I walked everywhere and was at points one of those annoying people who didn’t have time to eat. (That is unfathomable now.) So how did I end up back in the pool? It started with my return to the Twin Cities and living with various family members in the suburbs. The move back home came with my first car, and my suburban locales forced me to drive everywhere. I felt uncomfortably chubby, and I knew exactly why: I wasn’t active at all.

The situation was bad enough to cause me to run. Of all the athletic activities I had dabbled in during my youth, running was never on the list. But with access to my sister’s treadmill and the Couch-to-5k running plan, I was set. Running became even more appealing when I started my teaching career. After a long day of working with hormonal teenagers, it became a routine method of stress relief.

The Solitary and Practical Method of Approaching Sports

Running is so inherently quantifiable. Goals can be set easily whether via miles run, pace met, or races finished. New Year’s resolutions such as “eat better” or “be more awesome” sound okay on paper, but are completely immeasurable. In 2006 I decided on two finite goals: run a 5k race and a 10k race. After those weren’t so bad, a marathon wasn’t out of the question.

Why race instead of just run? I could run any of those distances on my own (though 26.2 is highly unlikely). Yet the officialness of many races—putting your name in, paying the money, tying the timing chip to your laces and wearing the shirt on your future runs—makes the run count that much more. The energy of the participants and the onlookers pushes people toward their best in ways that are hard to duplicate alone.

Around the time I started training for my first marathon, I bought a bike from Craigslist. At the time, I was a biker in skirts with brakes you could hear blocks away—not one of those spandexed speed demon bikers. Biking was for practical reasons, not for sport.

Just like running, biking became something I did (unless necessary bike repairs and winter got in the way). Eventually my dad, an avid biker and spin instructor himself, took notice and asked one day, “Have you thought about doing a triathlon?”

“No. Why would I do that?”

“Well…you run. You bike. You know how to swim.”

The seed was planted. And he had a point about the usual weakness of runners-turned-bikers-turned-triathletes: swimming is their Achilles heel. It doesn’t usually matter, as few make or break their race in the swim. Still, while other wannabe triathletes worried about swimming, I was potentially set.

Except I hadn’t swum in the athletic sense for fifteen years. I bought a new suit, cap, and goggles and hopped back in the pool in the spring of 2009. As it turns out, swimming is like riding a bike: everything comes back to you no matter how long it’s been.

Although it was good to be back in the water, I felt restless in the pool on my own. I would cycle through 100 yards of freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke, partially because it helped me keep track of my laps, but mostly because I had no clue what a swim workout was supposed to look like. As I aimlessly looked through the class catalog for my YWCA in Cathedral Hill, I asked a friend (who was also planning her first triathlon) on the phone: “Should I sign up for this class? Masters Swimming. For people who can swim 200 yards.”

“Yeah, you totally should.”

Team Kickball: All Kinds of Letdowns

That summer was one of trying new things and figuring out what works. At the same time I started attending weekly Masters classes and slowly immersing myself into regular swim workouts, I started playing kickball. Like most of my high school activities, I played kickball because it was something to do, and doing something is better than staying home.

But eventually I found myself welcoming any other events that could usurp kickball’s place until I came to an epiphany: I hate kickball. Kickball is a boring sport masked by slowly dimming skies and beer on the sidelines. I couldn’t handle the manic boredom-stress cycle of it; all I wanted to do was hide in the outfield and hope the ball never came to me. Perhaps aficionados of the game say the excitement lies in the fly ball, perfectly poised toward right field, right where I could hustle a few feet and… completely let my teammates down by missing the catch—every time. I guarantee. The kickball kids would say it was okay, but I know a fair portion of them didn’t mean it because kickball is serious business.

In solo sports like running and swimming, the only person I have to worry about letting down is myself. Even when this happens, I can shrug off my disappointment with the fact that I’ve usually gotten a good workout out of it. Though I had known I wasn’t a team sports person for some time, finally identifying the root of my sports personality was enlightening.

In August 2009 I completed the triathlon. The 800-yard swim was less of a fight against endurance and more of a battle of my limbs against many others’. The bike and run portions of the race went all right, and I could check the triathlon off the ever updating life list.

Technically I could have been done with swimming: I met my goal. Instead I found myself swimming even more in the fall, sometimes three times a week with Masters. Though I never consciously missed swimming in the many years it was absent, I was really happy to have it back in my life.

How to Set Goals, Swimming-wise

Masters swim is a class designed for adults who know how to swim and want to swim some more. My group includes people in their 20s up to people in their 60s. It includes former collegiate athletes, current triathletes, and people who just want to get some laps in. It includes lawyers, teachers, bartenders, and bankers.

Beth, our leader and coach, guides us through the workouts. As Beth gets to know the swimmers, it’s as if she compiles a frequently updated mental spreadsheet of everyone’s relative speeds. We arrange ourselves into lanes by ability, and if we get it wrong she’ll gently nudge us one way or the other. We are then assigned a workout, tailored for each lane’s capabilities.

The anchor of swim class is knowing one’s 100-yard freestyle time. What can you hold in a normal practice? What can you sprint? With your 100 time, quick calculations can help you estimate how much time you can expect on a longer swim (I usually swim a 100 under 1:30, so 500 yards should take 7:30). The middle lane is full of people like me, hovering around 1:30s. The fast guys in the far lane swim somewhere around a 1:07 in practice as if it ain’t no thing.

Like running, swimming is a quantitative sport, focused on yardage and intervals. Initially the times set for our workouts meant little to me; I trusted that the set intervals were right for me, and it worked. As I learned more about my swimming self, I noticed patterns in my times and wanted to get down to the bottom of it—I wanted goals and benchmarks. Reading about Michael Phelps’ 100-meter freestyle time (somewhere around 47 seconds) was laughable, so I needed a better comparison.

I found it in my old bedroom at my parent’s house, taking out the Keds shoebox labeled “Medals and Ribbons.” A more precise name would have listed the latter first; the box contains only two medals and a wide array of colored ribbons documenting four years of swimming. First place, 25-yard freestyle, 8-and-under age group. Third place, 50-yard backstroke, 10-and-under age group. I dug until I found a worthy comparison, my fastest 100 freestyle time. There it was, on a large-but-sort-of-sad-looking ribbon for 11th place at a state meet in 1993: 1:19.38.

The next time I was in the pool, I did a 100 as fast as I could and checked the clock: 1:20. I sadly chuckled at the fact that some 16 years later, I was swimming at pretty much the same speed. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. On the one hand, young me had energy galore and was less worried about the thinking part of swimming, so it made sense that I was faster. But shouldn’t the older me be better, stronger, and more aware of form?

In the spring of 2010 our class had time trials. Masters swimming sponsors swim meets, but this was just for us, without the worry and hassle of an actual meet. A semester final, we called it. I stepped on the blocks, and Beth asked what our time goals were for 100 yards of freestyle.

“I dunno,” I said. “1:20?”

“Oh come on,” she scoffed. “I bet you’ll be at 1:15.”

In we went, four lengths of the pool at full speed. By the third I was already feeling weak. I pushed through and hit the wall.

“1:08,” Beth said.

“What?” I asked breathlessly, incredulously.

“1:08.” Redemption. I actually was better than 11-year-old me.

It was a small personal victory, but these triumphs are what Masters is really about. The people in my class have a wide range of speeds, but classmates are supportive, and even the fastest are amazingly humble. A fast lane, 1:05-hundred freestyle swimmer can tell you you were flying, and you can accept the compliment because relative to your normal pace, you were.

Alone in the Pool, Together

The encouraging nature of my cohorts is a large part of what keeps bringing me back to swimming. We don’t always have a ton of time to catch up, what with a warm-up, 1,500 to 2,000 yards of swimming and a cool-down. Still, we keep each other’s spirits up by panting pep talks between sets, or if we can’t get that out, simply counting down how many laps we have left. On slow nights, I might share a lane with one other person swimming side-by-side, which can easily turn into a workout long race. More than three people requires everyone to circle swim, and if you are grouped right you can draft off the swimmer in front of you, gently pulled by their wake. Because we spend most of our time together wearing speedos and swimcaps, Master’s fosters an intimacy that leads to amusing remarks outside of the pool, such as “It’s so weird seeing you with hair!” and “I didn’t recognize you with clothes on.”

Masters transforms swimming from an individual, independent sport into one of interdependence. The team isn’t one that will sigh when you can’t catch the ball; they are ones that will tell you to keep going on a rough day.

One could argue that if kickball is boring, surely swimming is just as boring: it’s doing the same thing, back and forth, over and over again. Swimming is often inherently monotonous, especially in a pool. Unlike running or biking, it has none of the usual respites—taking in the scenery, listening to music, or, while on the treadmill, catching up on who Jake Gyllenhaal is dating. Instead, good form in swimming dictates that your eyes focus toward the bottom of the pool and not at whatever physique might be in the next lane. Waterproof earphones exist but are frightening, so all you hear is the churning of water around you and your breath. On a good day I can get into a zone where my mind can wander. I’ll host conversations in my head and write essays. On bad days, my only thoughts are on how tired my arms are and how many laps do I have left and oh god this sucks and why am I not done yet?

Whether my workout is good or bad, I can always count on the benefits of swimming that I haven’t found in any other sports. I can count on knowing that I am using the entirety of my body, and feeling it from my brain, through my core, to my toes, which sometimes cramp up. The recovery is quick: arms that felt like jelly can turn into ones that could cut glass with a minute’s rest. (The fallback to jelly is quick as well, but those first few laps are glorious.) The best part is after the workout, when my tiredness is an all-encompassing, damn am I going to sleep so hard tonight tired. And unlike running, where I fret about aches in my knees, my shins, or anywhere, I feel good. Tired, but good.

They call swimming a lifelong sport because the water is so easy on your joints. I didn’t fully realize the value of this until I received the worst news a runner could hear: I had a stress fracture and was prescribed not to run for four to six weeks. There went one triathlon I had signed up for, and eventually another tri and a marathon. Initially I was even advised to avoid any strenuous biking, so the pool and I became even closer—sometimes closer that I wanted to be, as I ached to be outside in the summer instead of inhaling chlorinated air, but the trial taught me the importance of cross-training and switching things up.

In the pool I am definitely a sprinting swimmer. Feeling confined by walls, I’d much rather swim twenty 100s over four 500s. I tend to lose count of how many laps I’ve done, and concentrating on counting is a bore. But in open water, I am a distance swimmer through and through. Last year some non-Masters friends invited me to swim with them in Cedar Lake on an abnormally warm May night. The distance from Cedar Point to Hidden Beach isn’t that far, but it feels awesome to cross the water and descend (once you get through the weeds) upon a bunch of partiers on the sand. Later in the summer I started swimming two-mile loops in Square Lake in Stillwater with some of my classmates. After a disappointing summer of dropping out of races, I finally completed one: a mile long swim in Wisconsin.

The Minimal Fuss of an Adult All-Ages Swim Meet

The quantitative qualities of swimming were still attractive, and so I set another goal that could be easily checked off: compete in one of the meets sponsored by Masters. After finding excuses for a few others held during the winter, I signed up for a late February meet at St. Thomas. I put myself in for two events, the 50 and 100 freestyle. It made me nervous. Unlike my first marathon and triathlon, this race would be focused on speed, rather than just finishing. I was happy to discover that instead of organizing the heats by gender and age group, they took the base times and organized the heats from slowest to fastest, lumping men and women from a huge range together.

In my many ruminations of how the meet would go (all thought out while swimming at a much slower rate), I had visions of myself swimming calmly but quickly, hitting my flipturns and pushing off completely streamlined, looking at the floor of the pool instead of concentrating on the lanes surrounding me. I can say with confidence that all these plans went to shit. This is not to say I swam poorly, but rather I’m pretty sure I reverted back to my childhood ways, going as fast as I could, and only breathing when absolutely necessary. The 50 was over in 30 seconds, 30.28 to be exact. I won my heat and placed somewhere in the middle when the age groups were finally eked out.

The meet, though it sounds intense, actually had a very low-key atmosphere. In a way, it seemed like a way for a bunch of adult swimmers to relive their childhood swim meets, their high school swim meets, their college swim meets, or form a path for formerly non-competitive swimmers to create entirely new memories of what it means to compete in a meet. Like my Masters class, everyone there was doing their own thing and maybe I was too nervous to notice, but it seemed as if no one really cared that some of the people were truly excellent swimmers, while others took their time, in their lanes, on their own.

It was a long wait for my next event: the 100 freestyle. I had a goal for this one, though I didn’t share it. I wanted to beat 1:08. I cared about nothing else. The event came, and once again everything happened more quickly than I could process. Once all the swimmers from one heat were out of the pool, the whistle was blown, up on the blocks, swimmers take your marks, BEEP. In the water and once again, all thoughts besides GO were completely devoid from my brain. After the second turn, I caught a glimpse of a swimmer nearly on the other end of the pool. What is that?! I thought. A mirage? How is he out there already? I soldiered on, though the usual 75-yard slowdown was hitting me. I finished and turned around to view the scoreboard, a move that still seemed familiar from the old state meet days. 1:08 something.

I confess: I signed up for the swim meet at St. Thomas fully knowing I would be writing about it. I was hoping for the either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. I got neither, which fits in well with my reigning middle-of-the-pack mentality in all things sport-related. I was disappointed, mostly because because this story would have a much better conclusion had I beaten some sort of record, personal or otherwise.

A week later, though, I was at Sunday night swimming, with all my regular Masters companions.

“Erica! You were in the meet last week? How did it go? What was your 100 time?” My lane mates were full of questions and wide eyes.

“1:08,” I said, with a shrug.

“Wow, that’s great! Nice work!” And as we worked out our set for the night, they agreed I should lead the lane.

Erica Edwardson is a teacher living in St. Paul. She currently has three speedos hanging from her shower. For the record, she did really terribly at that Swim Camp triathlon when she was ten.