Monday, December 15, 2008

Ocean Miles

I have never partaken of an ocean-mile swim. As described in a previous blog (this one -- -- to be precise), I had to learn how to swim surrounded by jelly fish and horseshoe crabs, and that experience pretty much drained me of the desire to ever again do much open-water swimming.

Mr. Coach, who grew up in safe, sanitized and jelly-fish-free suburban pools, thinks that ocean miles are a hoot. In fact, every winter he convinces his college swimmers to try one in Ft. Lauderdale – just so he can kick their butts. Seriously. The guy’s edging closer to 50 with every breath and he still cleans up in the Ocean Mile derby. (Note to Mr. Coach’s freshmen: Just say no. All you end up doing is the fifty 50s workout in one of the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) pools as a substitute.)

But every year, those silly freshmen fall for the pitch. Want to swim ONLY a mile this morning AND not have to worry about your form? Swim the Ocean Mile. Want to see manta rays floating beneath you, like butterflies in a meadow of seashells and golden sand? Swim the Ocean Mile. Want to take on your aging coach and see who’s in better shape? Swim the Ocean Mile!

As for those pesky little worries about the Portugese man-of-war jelly fish, fuggedaboutit! You only have to worry about them if there’s a wind out of the southeast and then they cancel the swim (although you may want to ask Whitney about that).

But here’s the thing about Mr. Coach and open-water swims that any freshman might want to know: Yeah, he seems all mild-mannered gentlemanly and everything, but when he swims one of these things, he goes to his schizophrenic-psycho place and it’s not pretty. Once, after watching my husband slice his way through an open-water swim in a triathlon, I asked him how he did it and he replied, "Oh, all you do is grab ‘em by the ankle, pull ‘em under and swim over. You’re really doing them a favor." I stared at him and mumbled, "It’s like I don’t know even know you."

And yet every year, he convinces his student-athletes to join him in this folly. One year, I walked along the shoreline, watching them do it. The team had come down to Ft. Lauderdale too late that year for the official city-sponsored competition, so they staged their own. For God only knows what reason, some of the girls decided, after starting, to swim out to the international shipping lanes and then parallel the shore. Maybe they thought the water would be calmer out there. Anyway, a lifeguard who saw this completely flipped out and went all authority-figure on me, as I trudged along carrying everyone’s hotel-room keys and asthma inhalers.

"They shouldn’t be out that far!" he shrieked at me. "They need to get back in closer to shore!"

I looked at the guy, but didn’t break stride.

"Number one," I told him, "I don’t do rescue missions. That’s your job. And number two, I hate open-water swimming. That’s my issue from childhood. I own it, but that’s not going to change anything right now."

So we split the difference. The lifeguard trudged along with me and when the team made it out of the water, he yelled at Mr. Coach. Who was too far ahead of his student-athletes to realize that a handful of them had swum to the Azores and back.

"Well," Mr. Coach grinned and told the livid lifeguard, "I’ll bet they never do that again."

(Remember, freshmen: That’s the fifty 50s workout in one of the safe, sanitized and Mr.-Coach-free ISHOF pools.)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Final Exams

We have now hit the time of year best characterized by the phrase "mens insana in corpore sano." (For those of you keeping score in English, that’s Latin for "an unsound mind in a sound body.")

You see there is nothing that is more of a momentum stopper in a college swim season than final exams. In fact, I suspect that most college coaches would rather face an entire team with microscopic flu germs spewing out every orifice than even one pre-med major with AN ANATOMY FINAL ON TUESDAY, AN ORGANIC CHEM FINAL ON WEDNESDAY AND, OH MY GAWD, A 15-PAGE PAPER ON ECONOMIC TURMOIL IN CENTRAL EUROPE DURING THE GORBACHEV ERA DUE ON FRIDAY MORNING. You can send a sick kid home to bed. The only thing you can do with an hysterical Academic All-American is shoot him.

Keeping kids swimming through finals is as much an art as a science, not unlike a taper. To do this, Mr. Coach employs a variety of tools. One is the Ziploc workout. He actually got the idea for this from a high-school swimmer he once coached: She used to occasionally show up for workouts with a gallon-size Ziploc baggie and a sheaf of notes she needed to study. The notes went in the Ziploc and, during kick sets, she studied. (No small surprise, she ended up going to – and swimming for – the Air Force Academy and is now working for a branch of the government which, if we identified it or her, we’d have to send you a virus to kill your computer.) Nowadays, Mr. Coach will occasionally throw a Ziploc workout at his swimmers, just to calm their study-hungry nerves.

Seeing as how it’s also the holiday time of the year in December, Mr. Coach also will attempt to distract his athletes with holiday-themed workouts. You’ve got your "12 Lanes of Christmas Kicking," your "8 Rounds of Hanukkah Drills," your "7 Sets of Kwanzaa Descends," or the "Eid al-Fitr Mile for Time" (when Ramadan falls in December). He also plugs in a few strings of festive lights and decorates a battered, 3-foot-tall, fake-pine tree with abandoned and broken goggles.

But, for the most part, final-exam time is just maintenance time. Time to maintain swimming, maintain good health, maintain academic eligibility and, most importantly, maintain that tenuous grip on sanity. So Mr. Coach keeps them in shape – both physically and mentally – by simply keeping them in the water.

And, when all else fails, he just hands out candy canes.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Giving It 95 Percent

As I venture into more masters’ swim meets, I have come up with a race strategy unlike any I have ever utilized in my athletic life – to give it 95 percent. And so far, it’s working.

Mr. Coach understands and endorses this strategy. As he so helpfully expressed it when I presented him with my 95-Percent Strategy theory, "When you haven’t grown up doing something, it’s easy to try too hard. It takes 1-2 years for you to learn how to do something new correctly." (I restrained myself from pointing out that it only took me four hours to correctly get from childless to motherhood, but that’s mostly because that whole "voluntary versus involuntary muscle action" discussion would have been so 1993.)

Little Mr. Coach is not so supportive of the 95-Percent Strategy. The first time he heard me mention it, he stepped back (as if expecting the lightning bolt to arrive any second) and gasped, "WHY wouldn’t you give it 100 percent?!" (Mind you, this is the kid who, when I told him, "We just want you to have fun, honey, whether you come in first or last," snarled, "WHY would you want me to come in last?!" One of Little Mr. Coach’s other nicknames is "Mr. Literal.")

But Little Mr. Coach has grown up swimming so he’s learned, without having to really think about it, how one doles out the adrenalin, endorphins and oxygen and comes up with a performance that is an honest reflection of one’s fitness level.

I dive in and it’s like a symphony goes off in my head. The treble line goes something like, "Was that too deep? Too shallow? Wiggle-butt, wiggle-butt, wiggle-butt, crap, I’m running out of air, where’s the surf–, crap, there’s the surface, smooth, rotate, smooth, rotate, keep it smooth, crap, there’s the wall, flip!" and so on. And the bass line just goes something like, "KICK! KICK! KICK!"

The goal of course is to get to the point where it’s all instinctual, where I can blank out and enter that lovely "out-of-body" state I so often enjoyed in track races, where I did know what the heck I was doing and was therefore able to forget what the heck I was doing and get 100 percent out of my body.

Until then, however, I’ll be giving it 95 percent and taking 100 percent of whatever I can get.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Swim Through It

In most parts of the U.S., we have turned the corner on outdoor-allergy season and are now embarking upon the upper-respiratory infection season. Nowhere is this more evident than in a pool. Or, to be more precise, in a pool’s lockerroom where half the team is gacking up a lung before and after swim practice.

The lockerroom is where you can really see and hear who’s got what and how bad. In the pool itself, it all sort of smears together and one can only hope that chlorine is killing most of it.

Some of this onslaught of disease will be due to what coaches call the "Thanksgiving Effect." Kids head home from college in late November to commune with family and friends, then they return to campus, carrying all sorts of new germs. Mr. Coach used to schedule a mini-taper meet for that first weekend back after Thanksgiving break until he realized that all he was doing was transporting 45 different pathogens across three state lines and back. Now he does the trip the weekend before Thanksgiving and then washes his hands – literally and figuratively – of the team for a week.

Most athletes, it must be acknowledged, will try to swim through illness. After all, half of them are used to functioning with limited lung capacity because of asthma, and the other half can’t hear out their left ear because of the chronic infections. And most of them are used to avoiding antibiotics as long as possible because they know that 10 days of amoxicillin has about the same effect on one’s swimming as donating a gallon of blood does, plus it makes you more susceptible to sun poisoning in Florida.

But there often comes a time when a coach has to step in and force a kid to go see the friendly folks at University Health Services. There’s bleary-eyed from pulling an all-nighter for an organic chem test, and then there’s bleary-eyed from the onset of mononucleosis. An experienced coach recognizes the difference. Usually it’s the inability to stay awake during kick sets.

An experienced coach also knows who can and can’t be believed when the symptoms for bronchitis, shingles or mad-cow disease seem to present themselves. Athletes would do well to remember this the next time a heart rate over 180 tempts them to feign cardiac arrest: You can pay now or you can pay later when you’ve got a goober geyser coming out your nose and 3,000 yards still to go.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Swim Parents: A Field Guide

Just as there are different types of coaches and different types of swimmers, there are also different types of swim parents. And though you sometimes hear the expression "the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree" in the sports world to describe athletes and their parents, it has been my experience that, more often than not, apples do not fall from apple trees.

Oranges do. Kumquats even. Sometimes large inanimate objects that couldn’t get into the pool on time for warmups if their lives depended on it. And usually those are the ones who were birthed by a PTA president who runs her own Pilates studio and her husband, the guy who bikes 68 miles and then surgically repairs seven leaky mitral valves every day before lunch.

But even if there is no predictable correlation between athlete type and parent type, the fact remains that there are different parent types. So in no particular order of importance – and this list is by no means comprehensive – I give you:

1) The Aerobic Spectator: Have you ever found yourself watching a parent in the stands at a meet (and occasionally at a practice) and thought, "Wow, I wonder his (or her) heart rate is up to right now!" By the time this parent’s kid has finished a race, the parent is bathed in a fine sheen of sweat and panting like a St. Bernard on a summer day. All without taking a single step. For this parent, spectating IS the sport. And really, in today’s time-pressed, multi-tasking world, who are we to judge those who find a way to combine parenting and exercising?

2) The Linear Thinkers: The dead giveaway here is the electronic device used to record their athlete’s lap splits, race times, workout details and USS registration number. Where it gets a little freaky is if the laptop, Blackberry or other electronic device is being used to record other athletes’ splits, times, birth dates, heights, addresses and SAT scores. The former type of Linear Thinker can be cultivated to make a great meet director. The latter type is going to need a restraining order someday.

3) The Clueless Wonders: OK, this type is probably my favorite if only because it’s so much fun to sit next to at a meet. Basically, these are the parents whose recessive genes combined to create a freak that excels in a sport neither parent ever did. Their kid will decimate a meet record and they’ll turn to each other and say, "That was good, right?" And then they’ll ask you what the name of that stroke was again that their kid just did. They constantly confuse yards for meters. They fret about what all this swimming is doing to their kid’s cello technique. They always make dinner reservations for before a meet has ended. Ultimately, though, you can’t help but love parents like these because for them it’s all fresh and new, and that helps keep it fresh and new for me.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Parlez-vous Chlorine?

In my alternate existence as a newspaper reporter, part of my job is to gain a passable understanding of the language in each new world I encounter. Everything in life is its own little world with its own culture and language, whether it’s a 4-H club devoted to miniature horses (talk about control-freak moms), people who collect Christmas nativity scenes (a surprisingly humorless bunch), or clinical anatomists (you do NOT want to know where med-school skeletons come from). When you’re a visitor to these worlds, figuring out the language is half the fun. But then, once you’re done visiting, you can forget the language.

When you’re actually living in a new world, though, you have to learn and retain the new language. When I emigrated to the swim world 17 years ago, I was like a mail-order bride, clinging to my big new American husband and relying on him to translate everything for me. A minute, for example, was no longer "a minute": It was "one-double-oh." The number 12 on a clock became "the top" and 6 was "the bottom." Feet turned into "fins" and hands were now "paddles." Somewhere between land and water, the mile lost 110 yards.

After one of the first swim meets I ever attended, I asked my husband for his take on how one particular race had gone and he replied, "Well, Siegfried took it out like a shot. He was all legs but then he started spinning his wheels, got hung up on the wall and died like a fart." I looked at him with tears in my eyes and whispered, "I have no idea what you just said."

My fluency in swim language has improved over time, but there are still moments when the language barriers pop up and, while not meaning to pass judgment on swim language, I do. The first time Mr. Coach told me that some fine young swimmer had "a lot going on under the water," I stared at him and gasped, "That’s disgusting!"

Similarly I remain confused that it’s considered bad form to "come up breathing." A kid does a flip turn, pushes off the wall and then takes a breath. Speaking strictly as a mother here, I am always hopeful that my children will come up for air when they swim, but Mr. Coach’s standards for oxygen intake apparently aren’t quite as high as mine.

So, while I understand swim language well enough now to know what is being communicated here, I remain unconvinced that to "come up breathing" is bad and that to have "a lot going on under the water" is something you want to be a flack about and drop yourself a bouquet – as we say in the journo biz.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Playlist

A couple of years ago, when it became clear that my switch from running to swimming was going to stick, Mr. Coach and the little Coaches got me a swimming-related Mother’s Day gift – one of those in-water music players, a Finis SwiMP3, to be specific. My yardage doubled overnight.

My SwiMP3, the first model available, was a clunky-looking thing with big earpiece flaps and a control module that sat on the back of my head. I looked like I was part of a medical experiment. As a result, I never failed to get a lane to myself. The second and current model is much smaller and doesn’t scare off as many Zippy the Two-Lane-Wide Breaststroking Pinheads as I wish it would.

My playlist is a constantly evolving work-in-progress, but I have come to rely on a few rules of thumb:

1) AC/DC’s "Thunderstruck" is not a good warmup tune. I find that my vital signs in water are way more susceptible to musical influence than they ever were while running, and you do not want to take the heart rate up over 160 on the first lap. So right now my warmup music is typified by slower, smoother but mildly upbeat stuff: Weezer’s "Island in the Sun" followed by Dan Fogelberg’s "Netherlands" (shut up, he was totally underrated), chased by the Tupac/Dr. Dre remix of "California Love." I had high hopes for that Ben Folds/Regina Spektor tune, "You Don’t Know Me," but decided its syncopated rhythm does funny things to my stroke cadence.

2) Kicking and disco go together. Sorry, but this is also true. The legs will and do respond to the fast 4/4 beat of a drum machine. R&B can be good, too. Hip Hop usually has too many tempo changes and some of the sampling, if other people can hear it, is going to...ooh, actually that might work to get them out of my lane. Never mind.

3) Songs that build to a stirring climax are great in theory but rarely work in swim reality, and there’s one simple reason for this – volume changes. The "white noise" of the water gives you a fairly small range of hearable volumes and you really can’t change the volume on these headsets while you’re swimming. So, while the Foo Fighters’ "Let It Die" would be the perfect tune to power you on a run up a mountain, in the pool you’re either going to swim in a sloshy silence for the first half of that song or else suffer hearing loss worse than your grandfather’s on the back half. Either way, you’re never going to get the full effect.

But the truth is I actually have been using my SwiMP3 less and less these days. I’ve gotten to the point where the tunes are becoming more of a distraction than an aid during the meat of a workout.

It’s kind of like that crossover moment in a track career where the newbie stops showing up in a color-coordinated Nike singlet and compression shorts with Oakley wraparound shades, and starts showing up in t-shirts almost as old as themselves, baggy shorts and a pair of imitation Ray-Bans.

It’s called progress. But unfortunately a crossover moment like this also means that I’m about to get my rest intervals cut.

Progress, yes, but not my favorite kind.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Barometer Kids

Earlier this fall, Mr. Coach had to get the assistant coaches for the USS club that we manage certified. Part of the certification process is to pass a multiple-choice test with questions about a variety of "what if" situations that a coach might face. One of the questions he was telling me about involved what a coach would do if the air quality was really bad inside a natatorium. The point of his sharing was to say that the correct test answer was "stop the practice," while the real life answer was "open the doors and turn on the industrial fans."

But that begged a couple of questions from me.

"How would you know the air quality was bad enough?" I asked Mr. Coach. "Do you have some sort of instrument to measure air quality?"

"Oh no," he replied. "You just look at certain kids. Some of them start turning funny colors and other ones start reaching for their inhalers."

I was horrified.

"You mean they’re barometers then?" I asked.

"Well, yeah," he said. "We’ve also got a few whose shoulders can tell you when the weather’s about to change. Remember Erin from the college team? Her shoulders could tell us exactly 24 hours in advance when rain was coming."

"What about water quality, like when there’s too much chlorine?" I asked. "Do you have barometer kids for that or do you just wait for the swim suits to disintegrate?"

"Oh no," Mr. Coach said. "Anybody can tell that when their teeth start to buzz."

I suppose that being able to read barometers is one of the perks of experience in the swimming world. And if you want to get serious about this, there are plenty of other barometers to be found around a pool.

Eyeliner, for example. When a young teen starts showing up for practice looking like she took a black Sharpie marker to her inner rims, you know you’re in for a long bout of stormy weather. But there’s no telling whether she’ll emerge a cheerleader, a Goth or a sprinter.

Clean chins and scuffed-up bellies are another sign to look for. A few years ago, a bunch of the 8 & Under boys discovered that a wet tile pool deck is just like a Slip ‘n Slide. They would launch themselves head-first, belly-down and go whizzing by, like a parade of penguins, until they hit a dry patch and came to a belly-scraping halt. Some of them could do it without scraping their chins. What does this tell a coach? Easy – who’s swimming fly on the medley relay.

Monday, October 20, 2008

When Dad's a Coach

People sometimes ask me how my children are affected by having a swim coach for a parent.

Well, for starters, I say, they don’t know any better so let’s not get them thinking they’ve been affected, OK?

Don’t all children have a revolving cast of 27 babysitters, each of whom is a Red Cross-certified lifeguard?

Don’t all children go to their first fraternity party at the age of six months and get used as "chick magnets"?

Don’t all children become the subject of semester-long Abnormal Psychology studies or have big toys called Vasa Trainers?

And don’t all children have more pictures of themselves with college swimmers than with their grandparents in the family photo album?

Of course not, but my children don’t need to know that.

The one effect most people assume is that my children started swimming early and often. Not a chance. First of all, neither Mr. Coach nor I had the cojones to drop our infants into the pool the way you see all those hard-core swimming parents doing. For one thing, that’s just...scary. For another thing, have you ever tried to coach an infant? You think freshmen are bad, try getting an 8-month-old to breathe on both sides.

No, the Coach Offspring started swimming when they were good and ready. Little Miss Coach started swimming when she was 5 and accompanied her father to a weekend-long outdoor meet with a kiddie pool on the side. By the end of the weekend, she had decided she wanted to swim, so she did. Little Mr. Coach started when he was 4 and wanted to keep up with his big sister. He spent a lot more time on the bottom of the pool than he did above water (still does), but he was having fun and getting air when he needed it, so it was all good.

Both children, however, started spending time on the pool deck long before they swam. For one thing, it was a good way to see their father. That January-to-March time period is a critical juncture in any swim-coach family’s life (I like to call it the "Single Parenthood Season"), so if the children were going to remain on a first-name basis with their father, they had to go to him at the pool.

One benefit of this arrangement is that each child started speaking in sentences rather early. One of Little Miss Coach’s first sentences was "Stwee lie aah kikov duh wah" (translation: "Streamline and kick off the wall"). One of Little Mr. Coach’s was "Stay in there!" (no translation necessary).

And these early attempts at communication provided us with valuable clues about our children’s personalities. Little Miss Coach is the more constructively instructive type, whereas Little Mr. Coach is...not. He’s a little more tell-it-like-it-is and don’t-even-think-about-sugar-coating-it.

When he was five years old, we met a young woman who had been a bronze medal Olympic swimmer. On the ride home later, my daughter said to her brother, "A bronze medal in the Olympics! Do you know what that means?" Little Mr. Coach looked at his sister and said, "Yeah. It means she didn’t win."

Hopefully that’s one effect that can be undone.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Swim Weddings

I have figured out that normal people (i.e., people who aren’t swim coaches or married to them) go through three wedding-attendance cycles in their lives.

The first one comes right after college when a small but significant group of your friends decides they need to lock in early because they’re afraid their good luck will run out if they lose a hold of this one.

The next cycle starts about five years later and runs for another five, as the rest of your friends decide it’s time to trade in the happy-hour shot glasses for a lovely set of wine glasses from Crate & Barrel.

Then you’re in the clear for another 20 or so years until your friends’ kids (or your kids’ friends) start getting married at which point you’ll get seated at the tables in the back but expected to buy the most expensive items from the gift registry because you now have the income to do so.

Swim coaches (and their spouses) are different because they experience only one wedding-attendance cycle in their lives. It starts when they get their first coaching job and it doesn’t end until they die.

Every year, guaranteed, Mr. Coach and I (and sometimes even the little Coaches) get invited to anywhere from two to six weddings. And, we have discovered, this seems to be a phenomenon limited to coaches and not professors at our university, which only makes sense. A student rarely spends the kind of sustained "quality time" with a professor that generates a wedding invitation. (Although the university’s chaplain does get conscripted into service quite a lot and, so help me, if he doesn’t come up with a new sermon soon, I’m going to pull out my electronic Yahtzee game and start playing – with the sound on – the next time I am present for one of his weddings.)

But, mind you, I am NOT complaining about all the wedding invites. Weddings have proven to be a very efficient and enjoyable way to keep up with Mr. Coach’s former athletes, kind of like Facebook but with food and an open bar. Sometimes you run into people and your last memory of them may have involved court-ordered community service but now you find out they’re in med school, have an adoring spouse and they spent their last vacation building an irrigation system for a village in Albania – and no judge told them to do any of that! That’s a really beautiful encounter when it happens.

But it sucks that we can’t get to all of the weddings we’re invited to. This past weekend, one of my husband’s former athletes (and also former assistant coach) got married in New Mexico which would have been awesome to attend, but with Homecoming and the Alumni Meet on the same weekend, it just wasn’t happening – not that I’m saying Hope scheduled her nuptials to get out of relay duties at the Alumni Meet, but the timing does bear noting.

So, I hope that Hope and Dave had a fabulous wedding (I expect pictures by month’s end), as did Rebecca and Amanda earlier this year.

And then it’s on to the other cycle that never ends – the birth announcements.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Two Types of Coaches

I believe there are two types of coaches. One type is the "screamer" who provides motivation for those who are unable or perhaps unwilling to provide it for themselves. The other type seems to be most effective in working with those athletes who don’t respond well to the motivation offered by the screamers. You could perhaps call this type of coach the "swimmer whisperer," if you want to be trendy, but in reality I just call this type the "non-screamer."

Mr. Coach is this latter type of coach. He is, after all, the type of person who, on the rare occasion that he uses a curse word, will use it by spelling it out (fortunately he has me as a resource if he ever needs to know how to pronounce one).

He also has only lost his temper once with his athletes and it’s a story that those who lived it tell to this day.

Once upon a time, some of the student-athletes he had swimming for him were on a 200-yard freestyle relay that was close to qualifying for nationals. Early on in the conference meet, they just missed the cut, so Mr. Coach decided to have them try again with a time-trial swim between the prelim and final sessions on the meet’s last day. The game plan was they’d go back to the hotel after prelims, get their rest and then return for time trials before finals began. Mr. Coach meanwhile was stuck at the pool all day because the never-ending heats of the mile also took place that day between prelims and finals. So he was relying on the student-athletes to get themselves back in time.

Well, as the expression goes in kindergarten, the relay members "made a bad choice" and decided not to return in time for the time trials. And, as they sauntered into the natatorium, they compounded the badness of their bad choice by laughing it off.

This is how Mr. Coach responded: He set down his clipboard, walked past the bad choice-makers, past the starting blocks, past the diving well, and over to the other side of the natatorium where, in full view of the team, he sat down on a bench. He said nothing. He did nothing. He simply sat.

The whole team watched him. At first they chattered excitedly about what he was going to do to the bad choice-makers when he returned. But the longer he sat, the less they had to say. By the time he stood up, about 15 minutes later, the team was grim and silent, and some of the freshmen were hyperventilating. By then also, the bad choice-makers had apologized to everyone, penned their wills on the backs of meet programs, called their parents to tell them they loved them, and then sat down to await their fates.

So Mr. Coach stood up from the bench where he had been sitting. He walked slowly past the diving well, past the starting blocks, and returned to his on-deck post where he picked up the clipboard he had set down. He consulted it to see who was swimming next, then took out his stopwatch to get the splits.

Later that day, the same quartet of bad choice-makers had to swim in the finals of the 400-yard freestyle relay, an event in which they were not close to making a national cut. But on that day, they did make the cut.

As Mr. Coach later recalled proudly, "They really pulled it out of their you-know-whats."

(I would have said the same thing – just a little differently.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Spouse Coaching

Every now and then, just to boost the excitement in our marriage, Mr. Coach likes to coach me. I am still new to the world of competent swimming – which is to be distinguished from the world of survival swimming which I experienced as a child in an East Coast town where there were no pools so I had to learn how to swim with the jelly fish and horseshoe crabs. As a result, I entered adulthood able to swim but with form best described as "paranoid."

However, a serious injury suffered a couple years ago brought my daily running regimen to a dramatic halt and after a couple of weeks of inactivity and realizing that I wasn’t going to channel my excess energy into something inane like housecleaning, I decided to finally embrace swimming. I also wanted to master a flip turn before the youngest of my children did because there is nothing more obnoxious than a seven-year-old who can flip turn better than his mother, the woman who gave him life itself.

So it’s been a long, slow building process. You would think, coming from a competitive track background, I would have the leg strength and lung capacity for swimming. You would think. In reality, this has not been the case. My shapely and supple calves are now pretty much vestigial, like an appendix or those little hairs on the tops of your toes. In other words, they’re useless.

And my desire to breathe whenever I want was initially a very serious impediment to progress. I would stop after a set of...something, and tell Mr. Coach, "I’m seeing little black dots and zingy things." And he’d say, "Well, don’t do that." And then I would say, "Yeah, I’m laughing on the inside." And he’d be all like, "Ha, ha. Now go again at the top." And then I’d say I never knew how much Mr. Coach wanted to be a widower because at the rate things were going, he would be in about 15 minutes.

See, here’s the other issue with how Mr. Coach coaches me – he coaches me completely differently than the athletes he doesn’t make babies with. Other athletes can dive in to do the fly, come up doing the breaststroke, stop about half way through for a breather and then finish upside down and feet first. They’ll climb out of the pool, come over to him for their critique and he’ll talk about the one thing they did right: "You know, Edna, I really liked the way you stepped up to the block there. That gives us something good to build on." And then Edna toddles off to the stands, feeling all empowered and glowing with positive self-esteem.

I rip double-digit amounts of seconds off my 100 free, I surface (seeing black dots and zingy things) and Mr. Coach says, "OK, that was good, but here’s what we’re going to do differently the next time...." And then Mr. Coach gets an earful about how much money he saved not having to pay for epidurals.

So Mr. Coach tries not to coach me too often. And that’s probably as it should be. At least for the sake of our marriage.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Kicking. There probably aren’t many swim teams left on the planet that don’t begin their season with copious amounts of kicking. And there probably isn’t a faster way to clear space in the lanes than to heave a couple hundred thousand yards of kicking at a team.

Mr. Coach’s team is currently in the full throes of Kick-mania (or "Thinning the Herd," as I sometimes calls it). You’ve got your sprint kick sets and your longer, anaerobic-threshold kick sets. Your kicking drill sets, your vertical kicking, your going-right-into, your intervals, descendings and your "I could be watching Oprah and eating chips and salsa right now but, no, I thought it would look good on my resume to swim all four years" kick sets. And then finally, you’ve got your "would you like cremation or a coffin with that coronary" kick sets. If a newbie makes it to this point, then you know they are in serious need of a social life.

I myself am still making peace with the whole kicking thing because I’m still emotionally scarred by how little (some would say "not at all") a lifetime of running had prepared me for swim kicking. Totally different muscles. Plus I have only recently mastered the "one-arm stroke, turn and push off the wall" maneuver, but I can only do it on one side.

I have, however, been toying with an ingenious turn maneuver: A few yards out from the wall, you dive under the kickboard, flip-turn off the wall, and then come up and resume kicking (with the kickboard) in the opposite direction. Ideally you would want to be using an ellipse-shaped kickboard (not that I have one, but if Mr. Coach ever let me use the power tools, I would. Seriously, it’s like you chew up 30 feet of crown molding with a compound miter saw ONCE and suddenly power tools are off limits.). Anyway, it’s an idea, although Mr. Coach says that such an ingenious turn maneuver would be cheating. On whom, I would like to know.

But it is fascinating to watch Mr. Coach’s team reconcile their fates to Kick-mania. The messages scrawled on the pool’s dry-erase boards are cute. Recently someone wrote: "We don’t like kicking." To which someone else responded, "But we do like long walks on the beach and romantic dinners over candlelight." It’s so cute when they start hallucinating.

As for the complaints, well, maybe the student-athletes just need to think of this as the problem-solving portion of the season. For those who don’t like falling asleep in class or while sitting on the toilet, think of Kick-mania as a natural remedy for insomnia. For those experiencing foot and leg cramps, try welcoming the cramps as bonus exercise for those ligaments and muscles. And for those who complain about the girth that kicking adds to their, ahem, hip-flexor region, well, that’s what God made cargo pants and baby-doll tops for.

And just remember – if you can survive this, you can probably survive the winter training trip.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Michael, SNL and the Future of the Sport

Is anyone else out there nervous about Michael Phelps’s appearance tomorrow night on Saturday Night Live? Sure, he did a heap of good for the sport with all those gold medals, world records and overall good sportsmanship, but you realize of course he could destroy the entire sport tomorrow night.

Oh, no, you people read the Internet. You KNOW what some of those Internet haters are going to do to him (and us, by association) if he so much as flubs one line or flashes those famous bicuspids when he shouldn’t. It’ll be all, "Sure, Michael Phelps can swim faster than I can walk, but he can’t deliver a punch line to save himself! Ha, ha! Swimming sucks!"

Little age-groupers who started the school year with their heads held high and their little swimmer biceps on display are going to get to school on Monday and hear, "Michael can’t do a spit-take! Swimming sucks!"

The high schoolers, who finally grew in a crop of undamaged hair and got invited to the cheerleaders’ table to discuss the men’s 400 free relay over lunch, are going to find themselves exiled to the back table with the exchange students – from France.

The college coaches, who had been invited to sit next to the A.D. at department meetings and debate the merits of 25 yards or 50 meters if the school built a new pool, are going to arrive at Monday’s meeting and find averted gazes and stifled snickers. Except for the women’s golf coach who’s going to say something like, "It’s OK, even Eun-Hee Ji didn’t know how to cross to stage left and deliver a line into Camera 3 when she started out."

But, maybe, just like in that 100 fly, Michael can pull it off. Instead of gliding in, he’ll take that extra stroke and nail it. Yeah, maybe those writers can think up something as brilliant as that men’s synchronized swimming skit from...oh jeez, it was 1984, wasn’t it? That’s a long time between decent aquatic-humor sketches, isn’t it.

But, no, it’s going to be OK. It is. Probably.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Meet Chow

Let’s face it: Bon Appetit magazine is never going to devote an issue to the food found at swim meets. But that doesn’t stop anyone from eating at swim meets, least of all me. However I have noticed that the further down the totem pole you go in meet size, the better the food gets. It’s almost like an incentive to never get a legal breaststroke.

Your national and international-level meets are probably the worst when it comes to what’s available at the concession stands. You’ve got your bloated, boiled hot dogs, your overly salty nacho chips with melted processed cheese food products, and maybe some bland, palm-sized, microwaved pizza. Big whoops. The coaches on the deck getting Dixie cups filled with fruit, veggies and ranch dip are doing way better than the folks up in the stands. And there’s only so many stale bagels that a person can eat in one weekend.

Of course, there were the Australian Olympic Swim Trials when we were living Down Under in 2004. On the walkway overlooking the competition pool in Sydney, a lineup of tents had been erected and two of them were serving beer and wine.

Beer and wine at a swim meet. You could stop right there and declare the Aussies the winners in the Meet Refreshments competition, but you’d still have to factor in their hot dogs.

I will probably understate this, but the Aussies’ hot dogs were the saddest, most indigestible excuse for food that I have ever tried to consume in my life. I’m not even sure there were any meat products in there, and if there were, I don’t want to know what part of what animal they were. No, the Aussie hot dogs completely negated any good will achieved by the chardonnay and Victoria Bitter. Not that I didn’t give the chardonnay a fighting chance, but all the vineyards and breweries in Australia put together couldn’t erase the sense memory of those corpulent tubes of tastebud death.

But there is one place where the swim meet food is going to be good, sometimes even inspired. And that’s on a July weeknight at a dual meet in a 25-yard pool where at least half the 8 & Under age group is going to be disqualified for inventing a new stroke. And the reason you will find the best food in the swim world at these meets can be summed up in one word: crockpots.

Whether it’s Pete O’Halloran’s Pulled Pork, Lori Hepplewhite’s Tostados or Jenn Zuweski’s grandmother’s Baked Beans, when you’ve got crockpots bubbling away at a swim meet, life is worth living. It doesn’t matter if little Hortense finished the butterfly with her face and now needs extensive amounts of reconstructive orthodontia. Or if Elgar invented a new stroke – the flutterfly – which got the relay disqualified and lost the meet for the team. Chow down on a couple of Marcy Schittzlebaum’s Sloppy Joes and all is right with the world.

Unless of course you have a fascistic local-government regime – like the one in our hometown – where the health department has banned home-cooked food at events on city-owned property because they claim the risk of "food-borne illness" is too great.

To which I say: "Dear Food Police, No self-respecting home cook is ever going to serve up a crockpot full of E. coli at a summer-league swim meet, because if they did, it doesn’t matter how fast their kid swims, they would have to move to another state, change their names and enroll their kid in ballroom dancing, that’s how humiliated they would be. So, nope, not gonna happen. Give us back our crockpots. Sincerely, Mrs. Coach"

Monday, September 1, 2008

Swimming Rites of Passage

(Or: Why Mothers Develop Nervous Tics)

Earlier this summer, I had to fetch Little Mr. Coach from a swim camp that he and his father attended. Mr. Coach was booked to coach all three sessions of the camp, but Little Mr. Coach had to return home early for his summer swim league championships.

So, after a brisk 10-hour drive, I arrived at the swim camp and headed for the campus natatorium where the last training session of the day was going on. Picture, if you will, this scene:

Me walking onto the pool deck just in time to see my son – my baby boy, the fruit of my womb, the only male of his generation in the extended Coach family – climbing the stairs to the top of the diving tower. Which he then jumped off, feet first, into the water which was 10 meters (or roughly 6 miles) below. And where was his father, you ask?

Herding more children up the stairs to the top of the diving tower.

Apparently, as I have since learned, it's a rite of passage in the swimming world for young people to hurl their bodies off towering structures into vats of water. Little Mr. Coach survived this rite of passage – though right before entering the water he unpointed his toes, so the soles of his feet were screaming at him for a couple hours afterwards.

But I should be grateful (and not just because I can still nurture the dream that my son will give me grandchildren some day). Apparently there is a variation on this rite of passage which involves nudity. I’ve been told, though I have not witnessed it myself, that during winter training trips college freshmen (and a few freshwomen) will perform this ritual without the benefit of clothing. I extend my heartfelt sympathy to the mothers of these ding dongs (especially if they fail to adequately protect their, you know, ding dongs).

Other rites of passage (which I would like to point out do NOT exist in the track world from whence I came): writing on each other with Sharpie markers (Mr. Coach tells the parents of new swimmers not to worry, the ink comes right off with a belt sander); letting your hair get fried from chlorine (because nothing says "Date me!" like hair that crumbles when you touch it); and shaving all the hair off one’s body before a big competition.

Mr. Coach was still in the habit of "shaving down" (though for triathlons) when I married him.

Yes, there is truly no moment more special in a new and potentially fragile marriage than the first time a husband asks his wife to shave his back for him. It’s a moment that ranks right up there in specialness with the moment when the wife realizes her leg hair grows back way faster than her husband’s.

So I can only hope that, by the time it comes time for Little Mr. Coach to get his back shaved, Adolph Kiefer and his wonderful associates will have invented something that, with one good zap, can blast the hair off an athlete’s body. Now THAT would be a rite of passage.

Monday, August 25, 2008

How to Be a Good Recruit

Parents sometimes ask me what Mr. Coach looks for when he recruits a potential collegiate athlete. Talk about your loaded questions. But sometimes, depending on how manic the gleam is in those parents’ eyes, I will actually tell them.

1. The Ability to Fly Solo: I can still remember the day when Mr. Coach came home so excited about a visiting recruit he couldn’t stop grinning. "Are her times that good?" I asked him. "They’re very good," he replied, "but even better – she came alone." "What do you mean she came alone?" I asked him, knowing the girl was from the other side of the time zone. "I mean, she got on a plane by herself, she got here to campus by herself and she is visiting by herself," he cackled with glee. "Is she an orphan?" I said. "No," he shook his head, "she’s just mature."

And therein lies the glamorous allure of that particular recruit (who did indeed come to swim for Mr. Coach, did very well in school and sports, was a phenomenal babysitter and has kept in touch all these years and is probably reading this right now, knowing that I’m talking about her. Hi, Em!). She was mature enough to make a decision like this for herself. And her parents knew that.

Now, granted, you can’t blame parents for coming along on most recruit visits. Safety alone often makes that necessary. Plus if the parents know they’ll be paying for any portion of their child’s college education, they have every right to check out the money pit into which they’ll be shoveling the Benjamins.

But when Fauntleroy shows up with Mommy and Daddy, and then Mommy and Daddy do all the talking while Fauntleroy sits quietly in the corner, Mr. Coach knows exactly where Fauntleroy’s going to be during his first weekend at Money Pit U if he comes there. He’s going to be in the emergency room getting his stomach pumped because Fauntleroy’s first taste of freedom is going to come in a six-pack. Possibly two or three of them. So parents, either raise your kids to travel alone or let them do the talking when you visit.

2. A Big Oxygen Intake Unit: The big hands-and-feet thing is a given in the swimming world. Those are the paddles and fins. But, from years of careful observation, Mr. Coach has added another body part to his list of desirable traits in recruits: Big noses. Whether the larger-than-average size comes from length or width or distance off the face doesn’t matter. Most excellent athletes, no matter what the sport, seem to have larger-than-average honkers. (If you don’t believe me, just go look at the athlete photos on the NBC Olympics Web site.) So, moral to the recruiting story here – don’t get a nose job.

3. A Sense of Humor: Most swim coaches have a sense of humor (or think they do). So it helps if the athletes have a sense of humor, too, because they’re going to be captive to their coach’s dumb jokes if they come to swim for him or her. When recruiting, Mr. Coach may throw a line out from a Monty Python or Mel Brooks movie, just to see if the recruits respond. If they do, then that’s golden. If they don’t respond but their parents do, then there’s hope. So brush up on your classic comedy films. It can only improve the overall quality of your life.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Coaching Girls vs. Boys

Because Mr. Coach coaches both men and women, people sometimes ask him (or me if I’m standing closer) which gender he prefers to coach. I say that, if Mr. Coach HAD to make a choice between the two, he might choose the female of the species and the reasons have nothing to do with anything sleazy. If you’ve seen one scantily clad female with overdeveloped trapezius muscles, you’ve seen them all.

It’s just that when you figure you spend 95 percent of your time with an athlete in practice and not meet situations, and one of those genders is a LOT easier to work with in practice situations, it only makes sense that you’d go with the practice-friendly species.

That’s not to say girls can’t be a chore to coach. For starters, girls cry. Usually it’s about stuff that has nothing to do with swimming. Relationship woes top the list of reasons to cry during practice, but so do intra-team personality conflicts, midterm exams, sick pets and the return of high-waisted pants. But, to their credit, girls will cry AND swim. They’re just more efficient that way. Mr. Coach also maintains that girls are fundamentally tougher and that’s very useful in practice situations.

Boys will bitch and moan and whine and complain and touch each other in inappropriate places during practice. They will not only pee in the water during practice, they will announce they just peed in the water during practice. And then when practice is over, they’ll bitch and moan and whine and complain all the way into the showers where they’ll drag chairs in, sit under the water for an hour, and continue to bitch and moan and whine and complain until the maintenance crew comes to Mr. Coach and tells him to get the boys out of the shower.

Now to be fair, in meet situations boys do seem to function more predictably than girls do, and Mr. Coach does appreciate that. And boys, if so moved by the spirit, will swim through a bulkhead if that’s what the team needs (girls would but, again to their credit, they know that heads don’t grow back).

I also feel compelled to add that girls are more readily available and responsible babysitters but boys do make for very interesting babysitters. One guy once built a small city out of Tinkertoys in our living room. It was so cool looking we left it up for two weeks. And guys’ Lego skills tend to be off the charts.

Once graduated, girls will stay in touch pretty frequently for the first five or so years, but then most of them will disappear into their new lives. The guys disappear at first and then reappear after about three years. And usually when they reappear, the first thing they do is apologize for everything they ever did to make Mr. Coach’s life difficult. It’s like clockwork, the way the guys reappear and apologize.

And then they’ll start bitching and moaning and whining and complaining about something new. In a way, it’s kind of comforting.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Olympic Thank-You Torch

Every day, Mr. Coach shows his gratitude to the athletes in his life by swimming the living snot out of them. Fortunately for him, they’re a lot kinder when they show him their gratitude.

Often, at season’s end, they show their gratitude with restaurant gift certificates (and free babysitting, always clutch). Once it was tickets for both of us to see a Broadway touring production of "Les Miserables" (if there was a subliminal message with that one, we’re ignoring it). Even after they graduate, Mr. Coach’s swimmers keep expressing gratitude for his having swum the living shot out of them. One gal, Kde, asked her wedding guests to donate money to her alma mater’s new pool in lieu of gifts. Seriously.

But, as I sit here right now in a hotel room, watching the opening ceremonies from the Beijing Olympics (the "fam" and I are in Indianapolis for a swim meet, but of course), I can’t help but remember one of the most unusual ways a swimmer expressed her gratitude for all the pain and suffering Mr. Coach inflicted upon her. (Interesting opening ceremonies, by the way, but Little Mr. Coach called it when he said those poor Hungarian women looked like they walked through a paintball game to get there.)

Molly’s expression of gratitude involved making Mr. Coach fly 2,260 miles, put on an outfit that made him look like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, then run a quarter-mile in single-digit winter weather through a dicey part of town. In other words, she successfully nominated him to carry the Olympic torch during the relay leading up to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Appropriately there was a swimming-related complication to the whole event. When Mr. Coach found out in fall 2001 that he had been chosen, he realized the date of the relay’s transit in the city where he was assigned to run it would fall smack-dab in the middle of his college team’s winter training trip in Fort Lauderdale. He hesitated for a moment until I gently pointed out he’d have to be missing a frontal lobe or two to turn down an honor like this.

So he drilled his assistant coach on the intricacies of keeping 40 college swimmers alive for 36 hours and then booked his round-trip tickets from and to Fort Lauderdale. Back home, I organized a caravan of friends and family to join us when Mr. Coach returned for the torch relay. And what a memorable relay it was.

After depositing Mr. Coach at the meeting spot for the relay participants, the caravan of family and friends set up camp at a pizza joint near where he was slated to do his leg of the relay. He would travel there in one of those buses like you see in airport parking lots.

It was a bitterly cold evening, so the parents sent the kids outside to occasionally see how close the news helicopter search lights were getting. Finally the advance vehicles started arriving. Highly perky young men and women jumped out of vans and began heaving bottles of soda into the crowd, beaning a few of the less observant spectators.

Before they knew it, the mini-bus with the relay participants showed up and out popped Mr. Coach, holding something that looked like a yard-long, saber-toothed tiger fang. A few minutes later a woman walking slowly and savoring every second of her time with the flame sauntered up to Mr. Coach, tipped her torch towards his, lighting it. And then he took off. Like a bat out of hell.

The caravan of family and friends and I looked at each other, slack-jawed because our plans to jog alongside Mr. Coach were disappearing rapidly into the winter darkness. One of my friends grabbed Little Mr. Coach, then a three-year-old, from me.

"Go, go!" he yelled, so I abandoned my son and took off after my husband, camera in hand. Alas, I did not reach him in time to get a picture (though he certainly got an earful from me later), but a pair of his college athlete’s parents had had the presence of mind to set up camp at his end point and they got some video of Mr. Coach sprinting in with his torch and passing the flame to the next participant. The rest of the caravan arrived a few minutes later and Mr. Coach, now done with his relay duties, walked back to the pizza joint with everyone, explaining why he taken the whole relay concept so literally.

"Before I got out of the bus," he said, "the organizers told me that they were running behind on time and they asked me if I could help them out, so I said, ‘Sure!’"

So now you know that when that Olympic torch got to Salt Lake City on time, Mr. Coach played a major role. And for that, his country undoubtedly owes him a big thank-you (though hopefully with free babysitting).

Monday, August 4, 2008

FOO: Friends of Officials

One of the risks of being a swimmer in a swim-coach family is that your coaching parent is friends with the officials. Now most people might say, "Oh, but that’s great! Officials are the most powerful people at a swim meet! Knowing the officials must be a definite plus!"

You would think. But I vividly remember the first time my son, Little Mr. Coach, swam a 100-yard Individual Medley. Now, mind you, Little Mr. Coach was only six years old at the time so Mr. Coach’s and my expectations were not high. But he and all his 8 & Under buddies had decided they wanted to try 100 IMs. (If you have to ask why, you’ve obviously never had an 8 & Under Boy in your household. When they’re not daring each other to try 100 IMs, they’re either perfecting their armpit-farting technique or licking electric sockets. Sending them out to screw up a 100 IM is a fairly safe and socially acceptable use of their energies.)

So anyway, Little Mr. Coach swam his first 100 IM and you didn’t have to be a meet official to know his result that day wouldn’t count. But you did have to be a meet official to disqualify him. Five times. At least that’s what the jolly official who came over to Mr. Coach afterwards said.
"Yeah," the jolly official said to Mr. Coach between guffaws, "we deked him five times, but we would have deked him anyway just for being your kid."

That’s a choice example of what folks in the officiating biz call "Official Humor."

Little Miss Coach and Little Mr. Coach have also learned they can count on meet officials to remind them of their parentage. Officials will look at a heat sheet and notice the last name.

"Hey, you’re not Mr. Coach’s kid, are you?" they’ll say, pretending to be all menacing about it. In situations like these, Mr. Coach and I have advised our children to deploy the gays-in-the-military strategy: Don’t ask, don’t tell.

But, to be fair, there are some advantages to name recognition. A coach’s kid is rarely going to get lost in the crowd and end up in the wrong lane or heat. And the officials figured out pretty quickly that if Little Miss Coach got DQ’d for something, it was kinder to discreetly tell her dad and let him handle the soul-rending swell of tears from those big brown eyes. Officials aren’t made of stone, you know.

But Little Mr. Coach is proving to be payback for Official Humor because to officiate a race that he’s in means you better know your rule book inside and out.

Walking during a backstroke? That’s disqualifiable.

Coming to a complete stop in the water because he couldn’t remember if he was swimming a 50 or a 100? Not disqualifiable because he didn’t touch bottom and he kept facing forward before starting up again.

Hopping onto the blocks after a heat has started and diving in (and even finishing first) when he was slated for the next heat? Actually, he got them on that one. The official deked Little Mr. Coach for "delay of meet" but Mr. Coach didn’t protest. He’s sure it wasn’t a "delay of meet" offense but he has no idea what exactly it was.

Hey, friends know when to cut friends some slack.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A New Pool: better living through bulldozing

There are no words more beautiful in a swim-coach family than these: a new pool.

Imbued with the sweet scent of hope that only a UV air-purification system can deliver and able to erase the memory of unidentifiable rashes like a diatomaceous-earth filter, a new pool is a harbinger of better things to come in any swim-coach family.

The swim-coach family will say to themselves, "This is going to be the year that Daddy finally kicks the Singulair habit." Or maybe they’ll say, "This is the year that the guys from the local OSHA office stop calling and asking if there’s anything they can do to help." Or perhaps, "This is the year that the microbiology class stops leaving petri dishes out to collect mold samples from the pool air." Bottom line, a new pool is cause for much rejoicing.

And now my family stands metaphorically perched on the metaphorical starting block of a literal new pool. Way back when Mr. Coach was hired, the university’s game plan had been to build a new pool in 3 to 5 years. Then economic reality hit and, like a seven-year-old in the 25-yard butterfly, the plans for a new pool have plummeted, surfaced and plummeted many times.

But this past year, somebody taught that seven-year-old how to get his hips into it and he finally touched the wall with both hands and the umpteen million dollars needed to get that pool built. My reaction when my husband told me (for the umpteenth time) that the new pool would get built? "I’ll believe it when I see it," I said. (I’m a little bitter about the Singulair bills.)

But earlier this summer, I began to see it. The architect’s plans were unveiled and a name for the new facility was announced. Trees were slaughtered and earth has been getting bulldozed around the new natatorium’s site, destroying the delicate micro-ecosystems where furry groundhogs have shuffled and snuffled for centuries and migrating songbirds have stopped to refresh themselves on thistle seeds and honeysuckle nectar. Soon, the lives of a half-dozen innocent tennis courts will be snuffed out.

And I couldn’t be happier. In fact, I’m thinking of throwing a party to celebrate this senseless carnage of nature and non-revenue-generating sports.

And while Mr. Coach works diligently to explain to the powers-that-be why starting blocks and lane lines are must-haves on his start-up costs list, I have been assembling my own list of must-haves: cushioned, ergonomically-correct seats in the stands (with cupholders), a timing-system control console that you don’t need an engineering degree to understand (for when the work-study students don’t show up and I have to help operate the timing system), refrigerated drink dispensers in the coach’s office, and a wood-fired pizza oven would be nice, too.

I would further request that the new facility get the rights to play a different version of the national anthem before meets, the version that I know Mr. Coach really wants to play: the Jimi Hendrix guitar solo – but it needs to be the studio version, not the live one from Woodstock. No one can accuse Mrs. Coach of being insensitive.

Monday, July 21, 2008

My World: and you're welcome to it!

The first time I ever went to a swim meet was on my honeymoon. In Fort Lauderdale. As part of the annual Swim Coaches’ Forum, which has been held since like 1857 at the International Swimming Hall of Fame pool complex. And, oh yeah, I was staying in a hotel with about 30 college students and their coach, my new husband.

As I look back now on my decision to elope on Christmas Eve and spend the first couple weeks of married life with a bunch of chlorine-impaired, hormonally-charged, voraciously-hungry social degenerates whose idea of welcoming the New Year was to toss the coach’s new wife into an unheated outdoor hotel pool at midnight, I’m pretty sure there’s only one explanation for my decision – the lifetime supply of sex.

With Mr. Coach, for heaven’s sake, not the degenerates. Jeez.

Actually, anyone who knows me didn’t find my decision all that surprising because I’m a little on the pragmatic and frugal side (which is not a bad way to be as a coach’s spouse). Elopement was an appealing option because I don’t like ceremonies and I especially don’t like being the center of attention in ceremonies which have become little more than commercially-sanctioned excuses to soak lovesick saps for obscene amounts of money which could be better spent on things like food and shelter. (Your mileage may vary.)

And a trip to Florida in the middle of winter also was appealing. Though it would not technically fulfill all the standards for a honeymoon (24/7 privacy, to name one), it satisfied enough of them and I also liked the idea of immersing myself completely in this new world of swimming. It was the moral equivalent of jumping into the water without sticking your toe in first.

Amazingly, I have absolutely no regrets about beginning married life this way. Though I wasn’t a swimmer myself then, I had been a runner all my life, so the athletic life as lived on an academic calendar was not unknown to me. In fact, the idea of returning to a lifestyle built around the cyclical flow of training, tapering, racing and resting was comforting. And even though I was, at that point, seven years removed from my own days of college running, my instincts still told me that a year begins in September.

I also thought, coming from an individual-type sport, that the similarities between the track and swimming cultures would be comfortingly familiar – though I did have some vague recollection that the swimmers I had known at my college were, how shall one put it, a little less tightly wound than my track teammates.

I had no idea how different the two cultures were, but getting thrown into a pool (an unheated outdoor pool) at midnight on New Year’s Eve, seven days into married life, was probably a good glimpse into just how different those two cultures really are.

I now suspect it’s the pounding from running, the gravity effect if you will, that makes runners both more grounded and more uptight. For example, if a runner gets drunk, it’s because he or she decided that the 1.14 beers it would take to get drunk will fit into his or her training schedule at precisely 9:36 p.m. on a Saturday night, eight weeks out from the NCAA championships. If a swimmer gets drunk, it’s because it’s Thursday.

Now granted, I have since learned that many swimmers can be just as anal as runners and some of them don’t even drink beer, but most of them still take chances with their personal safety, no matter where on the ranking charts their times appear, and they do so in a manner which says, "It’s not a death wish. It’s a complete absence of any sense of mortality."

Which, let’s face it, would have to be the case if you toss your coach’s new wife into an unheated outdoor pool on New Year’s Eve.