Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Numbersaholic

For me, the hardest part about joining the swimming world has been the numbers. Now I’m as much a numbers freak as any kid who ever memorized 20 years of American League East baseball team starting lineups (oh, like you never did that). I also grew up with a subscription to “Track & Field News -- The Bible of the Sport” with its monthly pages and pages of results and rankings. In college, I added the UK’s “Athletics Weekly” to my reading list, which gave me even more numbers to digest. Yum!

But here’s the thing with those sports’ numbers: Each one generated a fairly manageable amount of data. With major-league baseball, there’s a relatively finite number of statistics that can be measured. And with track, you have two sets of numbers because of the two genders and, for a little while in my youth before metrics took over, I had to know the difference between, say, 440-yard and 400-meter times (about 0.3 seconds).

But no sport, I quickly learned after marrying into the swim world, is as well-quantified (some would say as obsessively quantified) as swimming is. You have six bajillion race distances in both yards and meters. You have pools that are either “short” or “long.” You have four different strokes and another that’s all-of-the-above. You’ve got age divisions that begin at Post-Fetal and don’t stop until Worm-Chow. Oh, and then you multiply ALL of this by two for gender. Unless you’re competing at a masters meet that included a regional Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans-Gendered championship, in which case there may have been more than two gender categories but I wasn’t about to ask. Not after what I saw in the locker room.

Anyway, my brain just about exploded the first time I sat down with the meet results from a simple college, co-ed dual meet. The whole way through the three-page printout I kept asking my husband, “Now was that a good time?” and “Was that fast?” And he’d give me these random answers like, “Just look at the third 50!” and “Yeah, except for where you can see he got stuck on the wall.”

It took me years to completely understand these college swim meet results. But by then, I had hatched a couple of baby swimmers and then it was back to the drawing board. My oldest child was 10 before I could look at one of her times and say, with some measure of confidence, “That was...very good, I think.”

But eventually I did become fluent in Swim Numbers. I got to the point where I could read a collegiate conference women’s 100-yard butterfly consolation finals like a dime-store novel. “Ooh, somebody didn’t rest all the way for this one.” “Not a whole lot of fast-twitch muscle fiber in Lane 3, is there?” And “Now that’s what I call a negative split.”

I felt fluent, that is, until the day Mr. Coach came home with the biggest meet printout I had ever seen. It was eight inches thick. At the time, we were living in Australia while Mr. Coach spent his sabbatical working for their Olympic training center (Mr. Coach is also a professor of exercise physiology, so he gets these breaks every seven years to go watch people somewhere else swim). He had been working on a project to record and analyze races swum at their just-completed Olympic Trials.

“It’s the numbers from Trials,” Mr. Coach said proudly. “Every race by every competitor is broken down by start-reaction time, stroke count, length of stroke, turn time, kick rate....”

It was like waving an open jug of moonshine in front of a fall-down drunk and saying, “You wanna little sip?”

Yup, my name is Mrs. Coach and I’m a numbersaholic.

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