Sunday, April 26, 2009

Event Management 101

I have a friend with a problem. Let’s call my friend “Emma” (because that is, in fact, her name).

Some people cope with life’s problems by eating salty snacks (OK, that would be me). Or they take steaming hot baths (again, me). Or they watch the opening credits of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” 27 times in a row, laughing hysterically every time the line “A moose once bit my sister” pops up in the subtitles (that would be Mr. Coach).

“Emma” copes with life’s problems by staging 5K fun-runs.

Not running in them. Putting them on, as in telling some charitable organization, “Hey! I know a great way to raise money!” and then going out, finding a 5K running course, getting sponsors, printing up t-shirts, collecting money and – this part is critical – calling me and asking me what I’m doing at 6 a.m. on (fill in the date).

That’s because, sometime early in our friendship, “Emma” figured out that most coaches’ spouses are born with an event-organization gene in them. Give us a spreadsheet, a Thermos full of coffee and a box of honey-dip glazed doughnuts, and we can herd people into performing feats of physical exertion – and make them thank us for it. I’m not proud to possess this ability, but I almost always use it for good and not evil purposes.

But I thought I was off the hook when “Emma” moved away almost two years ago. Her husband makes a living running universities and he found a new job at a new school (whose school colors, it should be noted, are much more flattering to “Emma” than our school’s, so I couldn’t blame her for letting him take the job).

But, no, “Emma” was not going to let a little something like 822 miles get in the way of 5K event management. She even managed to frame it in terms of her birthday.

“What are you doing on April 26th?” she called and asked me last month.

“No,” I said, “you cannot stage a 5K to raise funds for your own birthday.”

“It’s not for me!” she said chirpily. “It’s for…,” and she went on to detail some truly demented but creative scheme to raise money for a middle-school jazz band that involves people competing in “trios” and “quartets” in award categories named “Woodwind,” “Brass” and “Rhythm.” (Look, I’m only best friends with the woman. I don’t tell her how to seat her jazz bands.)

So, long story short here, today I am going to be somewhere in the New England tundra, relieving the local citizens of $10 a head ($25 per family). But it’s for a good cause: Come fall, when Mr. Coach’s swim team is planning to stage a fundraiser of some sort, “Emma” is going to have to travel here and return the favor. And I don’t care if her new university’s football team is storming the beaches of Normandy that weekend and a $15 million alumni donation hangs in the balance. She will be here if she wants me to keep enabling her little 5K addiction.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Visual Contact Rule

Mr. Coach has been a coach for a long time. We’re talking centuries now. But no matter how many years he coaches, no matter how fabulously his athletes do, he will never master the intricacies of the Visual Contact Rule. And why is that? Because he is not a mother. And never will be.

Let’s demonstrate the Visual Contact Rule with a factual anecdote.

Every summer, one or both of the Little Coaches compete on a park-league swim team. Every Wednesday evening during those summers, the Coach Family is headed somewhere within an hour’s drive to spend the next 4 to 5 hours on the perimeter of an outdoor pool, watching kids of all shapes, sizes and ages defy the rules of organized swimming.

On one such Wednesday evening, I had some work to finish up with the newspaper I write for, so Mr. Coach was in charge of getting 7-year-old Little Mr. Coach ready and transported to the meet site. I would meet them there later.

I arrived just as the team was finishing its pre-warmup meeting. Little Mr. Coach came over to where Mr. Coach had set up our lawn chairs, and proceeded to strip down for his warmup swim. And when I say “strip down,” I do mean “strip down.” Down went the sweat pants and then up went the sweat pants, and in between those two actions, approximately half the team found out that Little Mr. Coach is definitely a male.

I finished my sip of Gatorade, turned and looked at my husband.

“Where’s his suit?” I asked, screwing the cap back on the bottle.

“You said you had your suit on,” Mr. Coach said to our son.

“I think I forgot to put it on,” Little Mr. Coach whispered.

“He said he had it on,” my husband said to me. “I asked him if he had it on before we left.”

And there, for those of you who aren’t mothers and who aren’t nodding knowingly at this point, is the Visual Contact Rule in, if you will, a nutshell.

“Did you actually see the suit?” I said, more rhetorically than anything else because I knew what the answer was. No, my husband – the non-mother – had not made Visual Contact with the suit.

We scrambled at that point to find Little Mr. Coach a suit because his non-mother had also not made sure he had duplicates of everything (suits, goggles, caps, towels) in his swim bag (although he did have all his Yu-Gi-Oh cards, one fin, two bendy straws, half a candy cane, and a complete Mousetrap board game set).

The 12-year-old brother of a teammate lent us a pair of board shorts. You know how you see those pictures where track sprinters work out with a parachute attached to them, just to increase drag? Yeah, that image pretty much describes Little Mr. Coach’s meet that night.

But at least they couldn’t disqualify him for nudity.

(Instead they got him for swimming breaststroke on the butterfly leg of the medley relay. But it was an otherwise legal breaststroke.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Post-Season Plumping

As a naturalized citizen and not a native in the swim world, there are plenty of things I’ve always found unusual about this culture. For example, the whole team cheer thing. I’m not sure there’s any other sport that devotes as much time and energy to composing and executing such elaborate screaming rituals. In track for example, you’d be lucky to get a “g’luck” out of a teammate on your way to the starting line at nationals. With swimming, a simple dual meet is going to yield a five-minute, 140-decibel group meditation on potato chips, strawberry jam and the necessity of achieving one’s athletic goals.

But of the many unusual characteristics of the swim world I have encountered, the one that still blows my mind is the post-season plumping. I don’t think I have ever seen so many perfectly healthy and athletically gifted individuals gain weight as fast as swimmers do once their season is over.

And we’re not talking good or necessary weight gain either. A few weeks after one season had ended, I came home from my daily swim and told my husband I had just seen one of his college kids show up to swim, too.

“Huh,” said my husband. “I wonder why he’s getting back in already. That’s not like him.”

“Well, it might have something to do with the fact that he looks like he’s about five months pregnant,” I said.

“Ahh,” Mr. Coach nodded. “Yeah, he gains it in the belly.”

With some of them, the weight gain goes right to the cheeks and jowls. With some, it goes all over, yielding a nice, doughy look. But with some, it goes right to the gut (there are often, but not always, fluid-consumption choices at play there.).

Mr. Coach has explained that the rapid weight gain has something to do with appetite lag. Swimmers really do consume an extraordinary number of calories when they’re in-season. I’d bet, if you did a statistical study, you’d find that most swimmers consume about the same number of calories per day as yards that they swim.

And when a swim season is done, it’s done. Swimmers don’t leave skid marks when they leave the natatorium for a few weeks (months, years or decades) of rest from swimming. But they do take the appetite with them unless they make a concerted effort to crank it down.

Or, as in the case of many male swimmers we have known, they maintain the caloric intake with diligence until they get to their winter training trip. That’s when the yards swum will exceed the calories consumed and then, just like crocuses in spring, their abdominal muscles once again emerge.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

My Chlorinated Cousins

At this point in my renewed blogging life on Blogspot, I need to give props to my cousin TJ who, in that spooky mode of communication that blood relatives have with each other, gave me the drop-kick I needed to move my blogging here. He’s a masters swimmer now in Colorado, having grown up with the sport in Pittsburgh and Chicago, and he’s been an enthusiastic supporter of my blogging.

His side of the family was the swimming side. Mine was the running and ball-sport side. I never got to see his side swim when they were competing in high school and college. I really wish I had. It might have prepared me a little better for married life.

But it’s ironic that TJ and I now connect because of swimming. One of my first fully formed memories of him involves a pool. But it doesn’t involve either him or me swimming in a pool. It involves him, as a preschooler, flinging a cat into a hotel pool.

Now, to be fair, he has maintained ever since then that he only wanted to see if the cat could swim. Which it did. But I can tell you it ran a heckuva lot better than it swam, once it got out of the pool.

That episode occurred during our families’ last visit to a lovely hotel near Bucks County, Penn., which our grandmother Meemo had selected for a family reunion. Not long after TJ heaved the hotel owner's cat into the pool, his sister Meg vomited split-pea soup all over the hotel’s dining room. And then the next day, after a wicked overnight thunderstorm, I sat on the hotel’s stone wall overlooking the Pennsylvania Canal and it crumbled beneath me.

A few years later, when one of our parents called to inquire about staging another family reunion there, we were told that the hotel no longer allowed visitors under the age of 13. I can’t imagine why.

Now my other swimming cousin is Mary Beth, TJ’s oldest sister. She swam in college before going on to become an emergency-room doctor and now a med-school professor. Knowing what I know now about swimming, I blame the sport for warping Mary Beth in ways that nearly put my daughter into psychotherapy.

It was about eight years ago that I got a call from one of my aunts, telling me to turn on the Discovery Channel at 8 p.m. because Mary Beth was going to be on it! So I let my then 7-year-old daughter, Little Miss Coach, stay up past her bedtime to watch Mary Beth on TV.

To watch Mary Beth get buried alive in a snow bank so she could test some fabulous invention that draws oxygen out of snow (using a converter tube built into a ski vest). Apparently her swimming background played a significant role in her getting the nod to go under the faux avalanche.

So, all of Mary Beth’s scientist buddies (and the television viewers) watched her on a closed-circuit feed from inside the snow bank to see how long she lasted before giving the signal to dig her out. Mary Beth lasted long enough to put my daughter into a fetal position, that’s how long she lasted. I don’t think Little Miss Coach has watched the Discovery Channel since then.

And I further think, having now met enough swimmers, I can understand why, to Mary Beth, getting buried alive in a snow bank would seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Just like, for TJ, flinging a cat into a pool also still seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to have done. Testing the limits is just so typically “swimmer.”