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.