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.