Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Schnipke Effect

That’s not what Mr. Coach really calls it. What we’re going to call "The Schnipke Effect" here, in real life goes by the last name of the real swimmer who prompted its naming. (Schnipke is really a last name on a mailbox that I’ve run past many a time, and every time I run past it, I chuckle to myself and say "Schnipke." It’s just a fun name to say.)

Anyway, the Schnipke Effect was discovered back at the start of Mr. Coach’s collegiate head-coaching career. That first year he had a guy show up at the start of the season who had been a lacrosse player but, for his senior year, decided he wanted to "try swimming." Seeing as how he was about 6'3" and had the wingspan of a pterodactyl, Mr. Coach said, "Sure, let’s see what you got." A few laps later, he asked the guy – let’s just call him Sam Schnipke – if he ever swam much before. Sam said, "Not a lot, but my grandmother was a national champion in the backstroke." (He wasn’t kidding either. She really was.)

As it turned out, Sam was very fast, too – when he was actually in the water and moving in a forward direction. It was all the little stuff that kept Mr. Coach up nights.

For example, Sam’s starts. Let’s just say there are five-year-olds who get more distance off the blocks than he did.

Then there were Sam’s turns. I dubbed each one "a turn in five parts": It was like looking at a cartoon drawing of a flip turn, panel by panel.

And then there were Sam’s finishes. How he escaped traumatic brain injury because of his inability to judge where the wall was remains a mystery.

And yet, in between the starts, turns and finishes, Sam was fast. Insanely, blindingly fast. He narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAAs in the 100 free his one and only year of collegiate swimming. But he did get to go to The Show on a couple of relays.

Most of Sam’s success, Mr. Coach realized, was because he just didn’t know any better. See, that’s the fun thing about freshmen or first-year swimmers. Because they don’t know any better, you can often get more out of them than you can out of the hyper-experienced, hyper-analytical athletes who will hyper-think themselves into muscle lock. Sam didn’t know that a six-second drop in the 100 free was huge. He just knew that if his coach told him he could do it, then he could do it. And he did.

So ever since that one year of Sam Schnipke, Mr. Coach has waited and watched for the Schnipke Effect to happen again. Some years it happens and some years it doesn’t. But when it does, like when you get a freshman who drops 37 seconds off her lifetime best in the 500 free, Mr. Coach and I just look at each other, nod and say, "The Schnipke Effect."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Are They Human? Or Are They Swimmer?

If you’ve ever lived with a cat and a dog, then you know that one of them eventually starts thinking and acting like it’s the other type of animal. And if you’ve ever lived with a cat and a dog, then you know it’s the dog that almost always loses this identity battle. Fido will start trying to move lighter and slinkier than he really is. He may even curl up on the couch with Tinkerbell. And if he’s really gullible, Fido will try jumping up on table tops and window sills. Even if he’s a 100-pound golden retriever with arthritic hips.

Swimmers often remind me of dogs that have been living in the company of cats for too long. They think they can move quickly on land, even nimbly, and they therefore persist in trying to move quickly and nimbly. They try to vault over starting blocks. They try to skip up and down bleacher steps. They try to skitter away after yanking a teammate’s swimsuit off him. They try.

I’m not sure whether the mental disconnect comes from being around non-swimmers who can walk without tripping, or if it comes from thinking that because they move quickly and nimbly through the water, they can also do so on land. Either way, like watching a dog that thinks he’s a cat, it’s a little strange. Funny, but strange.

And dangerous. In all the years that I have now known swimmers, I have got to say there are very few things left I have not known a swimmer to fall off of or into. Starting blocks, bleacher steps, pool gutters and guard ladders are just the obvious things. Chairs, tables, bookshelves, shrubbery and urinals are the less obvious things. Not a season goes by without somebody on Mr. Coach’s team getting stitches and having a really stupid story to go with them. He even had a set of identical twins who managed to get matching forehead gashes, several days apart and for completely different reasons. Seriously. (I got a little excited when the first one got his gash because it gave me a way to tell them apart. You can imagine my disappointment when Mr. Coach came home and told me the other one had just gotten a gash in the exact same place.)

And taper is probably when the stupidest stitch stories happen. It’s like the workouts drop just one lousy thousand yards in distance, and the entire breaststroke lane decides there’s never been a better time to brush up on their skateboarding skills.

And it’s not like it gets much better, even after their competitive careers are over. Exhibit A: Mr. Coach. Who was a college swimmer. A sprinter in fact. He now does triathlons. Every decade, whether he needs to or not, he and his bike go mano-a-mano with a moving vehicle. And guess who loses? Well, the last time it was Mr. Coach’s left collarbone and his bike frame which both ended up with hairline fractures, so he got a sweet new set of wheels out of the legal settlement.

But that’s not my point. My point is that swimmers are not cats. And you know what? They’re not even really dogs either. If anything, they’re fish and you don’t see fish riding bikes on ice, taking skateboards down the front railing of the library, or falling out of their closets. You just don’t.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

25 Random Things I Have Learned about Swimming

1. I’m pretty sure the reason I don’t need to use whitening tooth paste is because of the chemicals in the pool water.

2. I’m pretty sure the reason why Mr. Coach’s Max VO2 has dropped is because of the chemicals in the pool air.

3. A tough track workout makes you feel jack-hammered. A tough swimming workout makes you feel steam-rollered.

4. The lack of gravity-based pounding gives swimmers an undue sense of immortality.

5. There are more nerds and flakes per capita in swimming than in any other sport.

6. If you learn how to do the butterfly at a young age, it’s like riding a bike – you’ll never forget how. If you try to learn as an adult, it’ll be paint-by-numbers at best.

7. All the rule changes in breaststroke technique need to stop until I can do it.

8. Humming in order to learn how to not snork up water during a flip turn is an urban myth.

9. The wiggle-butt off the wall is the funnest thing about swimming.

10. Swimmers are more comfortable with nudity than they perhaps should be.

11. Being able to figure out splits in your head does not translate into marketable math skills.

12. You can’t completely zone out during a swim workout because then you lose track of where you are.

13. The day after doing yoga, you definitely take fewer strokes per lap.

14. Men cannot resist the urge to try and keep up with a woman.

15. A new swimsuit takes 10 years off how old you feel.

16. Yoshi is a freak of nature but we all respect and admire him for it because he clearly isn’t one of those "get a life" masters.

17. All 8-year-olds will tell you they’re going to the Olympics.

18. When their parents tell you the same thing, then you know the kid will be done with swimming by age 13.

19. Boys’ 8-and-under butterfly is comedy gold.

20. The best swim parents don’t know what their kids’ PRs are.

21. Some of the best swim parents are Australian: They won’t even cheer for their own kids in public because of TPS (Tall Poppy Syndrome: "tall poppies are made to be cut down").

22. Swimming will never get as much media attention (or the kind of media attention) it thinks it deserves.

23. But swim meets would definitely be more interesting for the inexperienced spectator if it borrowed some ideas from ice hockey – specifically, enforcers and relay power plays.

24. Swimmers who studied dance or the martial arts as kids generally take corrections better than those who didn’t.

25. It never gets easier to get in.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Coaching Girls vs. Boys, Round 2

It’s time for more anecdotal evidence that girls and boys are different, especially when it comes to coaching a swim team.

Observation #1: Nicknames. If girls on a swim team give each other nicknames, they’re going to be cute permutations of the girls’ given names. "Hope" becomes "Hopi," "Ashley" becomes "Sassily," and "Kim" becomes "Kimba." When boys give each other nicknames, the names are going to be a reflection of a boy’s physical, mental or moral shortcomings.

There have been several standouts from all my years of swim-coach spousing. There was "Cakes," a name which had some murky connection to the guy’s hindquarters. Then there was "Weest" which is short for the French word "Egoiste" which came from a TV commercial popular at the time for a men’s cologne where a bunch of angry women are yelling "Egoiste!" out their apartment-building windows at a departing guy who apparently is a cad. This swimmer wasn’t so much a cad as he was just a very driven individual who would gripe at anyone who wasn’t training as hard as he thought they should – and that included senior citizens and small children.

My favorite nickname, though, has been "Crow" which is short for "Scarecrow" which came from the Wizard of Oz character who said, "If I only had a brain." But the truly scary thing is that all of the gentlemen upon whom these nicknames were bestowed will still answer to those nicknames when you see them at alumni events.

Observation #2: Displays of Team Spirit. If you need it committed to posterboard, then you’re going to need a girl. If you need it in day-glo colors and embellished with glitter glue, you are definitely going to need a girl. What you will get with boys, when it comes to displays of team spirit, are things that can only be shaved off or measured in decibels. That’s because boys stopped making posters of any kind somewhere around the fifth grade. They also don’t make adorable name-tags in the shape of dolphins or flip-flops for hotel-room doors and lockers. And if boys create any kind of a "Countdown to Conference" display, it’s going to be on a dry-erase board and its subject matter will be R- if not NC-17-rated.

Observation #3: The Details. Boys often show a blithe disregard for the details of daily living – like "eat more protein than sugar," "speed limits are not optional," and "if you don’t stop touching it, it will get infected." But when it comes to obsessing over details in the pool, boys are more apt to do this than girls. A girl might cry if you give her a set of 384 50s, IM order, but she’ll do it. A boy will do it but then he’s going to want to compare his splits from this time to the last time he did the set. A girl might look at another team’s roster just to see if there’s anybody she knows from high school or club swimming. A boy will have pulled up the roster, Googled all the names on it, downloaded his opponents’ times from wherever he can find meet results, and then prepared recommendations for a dual-meet line-up.

And Observation #4: Gift Giving. If girls are in charge of picking out a season-end gift for a coach, it will be something thoughtful like a gift certificate to a restaurant and they’ll include free babysitting. If boys are in charge, it’s going to be a homemade calendar with team pictures like the one above.