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.