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.