Sunday, June 28, 2009

Decisions, Decisions

It’s that time of the year when swim parents face some serious choices: concession stand or event timing, split recording or raffle ticket shilling, ribbon writing or hiding in the bathroom so the volunteer coordinator doesn’t find you and make you wait out front for the pizza delivery guy. Summer-league swimming is a machine that runs on volunteerism, and the sooner you figure out what you can tolerate, the more sane you’re likely to be by the end of the meet.

In the past, I’ve usually volunteered to write up what gets posted on the team’s Web site (schedules, directions to meets, meet summaries, and step-by-step instructions for how to put a swim cap on for all our newbie parents). This year I decided to take a break from the writing (due in no small part to the fact that we’re avoiding too much contact with one of the summer coaches who stiffed us $419 in USS team tuition – long, sordid story there). So instead I’m concession-standing it. I’d like to think I’m helping the team every time I talk a kid out of that second chili dog, 10 minutes before his or her next swim.

Mr. Coach usually gets commandeered to run the timing system at home meets which only makes sense since he’s the only one who really understands how it works, though he’s been trying to train other people so he can see Little Mr. Coach swim occasionally.

Neither one of us volunteers for backup timing duties because we know what a few hours of standing on a concrete pool deck will do to your legs. Nothing good, I can tell you. Likewise with running the cards on which the event hand-times are jotted down, back and forth to the folks working the timing system console. One mom who swam competitively often volunteers to be a stroke judge, but she rarely DQs anyone, least of all her own flutter-kicking butterflyer child. And then there are always the parents who volunteer to do backup timing but only for the lanes their kids are swimming in. But that’s why there’s at least two adults working each lane.

Yes, summer-league volunteering is a carefully choreographed dance of mixed motivations and even more mixed results. Yet somehow in the end it all works and, of course, the kids never realize how much work goes into making their meets happen.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Movin' On

Most people probably assume that a coach would rather die than see a single athlete give up the sport that he or she coaches. Not true. There’s a natural lifespan to most athletic careers. Of course some have a very long lifespan. Take U.S. swimmer Yoshi Oyakawa, the 1952 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter backstroke. Just this past March, after aging up to the 75-79 age group, he swam the 50-yard backstroke in 33.37 seconds. If I didn’t have such good self esteem, hearing that would make me want to quit swimming and take up golf. He’s unbelievable.

A more normal competitive lifespan sees athletes through age-group, then high school and maybe even college and beyond with the competitions. But not always. Sometimes the lifespan is shorter, but you always hope that the primary reason someone decides to move on from a particular sport is because they found something else that excited them more in life. Take our daughter, for example. Blessed with equal dollops of talent for swimming and ballet, we knew she’d eventually have to make a choice as to which one she’d pursue. Little Miss Coach was a very good backstroker as a youngster. After one particularly good meet, when she sliced her way down a 50-meter pool into the 10-and-under national rankings that year, I said to her, “Holy cow, honey, what did you do different this time that it looked so fast?” She grinned and said, “I did it to the Radetzky March.”

That’s when we realized her days in swimming were numbered. (Even better was when I told one of her ballet teachers about her humming Johann Strauss’s Radetzky March to herself during that race, and he replied, “Well, yes, of course. She was harnessing her creative energy to resolve the challenge she had been presented with.” Seriously, that is exactly what he said. When she complains now about some of the fluffernutters teaching and directing her, I just hum the Radetzky March.)

Sometimes college athletes take a break, maybe for studies abroad or to act in a university play. Sometimes they return to swimming, but often they simply move on. Fortunately, though, they move on with happy memories of their time in the sport. And they probably still get in the pool every now and then.

What you don’t want to see are the kids who give it up because they burned out and now hate the sport. Usually when you encounter athletes like that, there’s a rabid adult right behind them – either a parent or a coach -- who made them feel like a failure for not achieving specific goals. And it’s not just limited to swimming either. We’ve seen this kind of self-loathing, adult-induced burnout in all kinds of sports, ballet and music. You want to take all the fun and future out of an activity for kids? Saddle them with adults’ ambitions on their way to those finish lines or curtain calls.

But if you want them to enjoy the journey, then step back and be amazed as they move on.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

How the Deck Was Won

As we head into the outdoor swim season now, parents find themselves challenged with a fundamental shift in the viewing situation. With indoor swimming, there is usually tiered seating in stands, so you’re able to get a decent view of the pool from just about anywhere in a natatorium. It might get a little uncomfortable if you’re sitting next to one of those Sunday New York Times toters (like me) but you’ll be able to see the pool (if you can just chill out and deal with the rustling paper, it’s not like I’m blocking your view).

Outdoor swim meets are like the Wild West – lawless, uncivilized and based entirely on the concept of squatter’s rights. If you’re the first one to park your chair on the deck next to the starting blocks, that view is yours -- until somebody else puts another chair in front of you. Doesn’t even matter if your chair happens to be of the wheelchair variety. I’ve seen people block out their own grandparents when there’s still an inch of deck space to be snagged.

I tend to utilize the in-and-out method of outdoor-swim-meet spectatorship myself, sort of like the nomadic Native Americans who moved to follow the animals they hunted. I place my chair as far from the meet as possible but where I’m still able to hear the P.A. system announce events. Then, when there’s an event I want to see, I walk over, scootch in where I’m least likely to encounter resistance, watch and then leave. But like the Native Americans, I have been displaced many times and I am a little bitter about it.

But many parents like to stake out turf and defend it to the death (or the end of the meet, whichever comes first). One way to make this work is to bring your entire extended family. There’s this one family in our summer league that always manages to snag the most primo viewing spot on the far side of the pool near the leisure-pool slide: It’s a narrow peninsula of space that defies turf warring. They get it by showing up early, armed with lawn chairs, food coolers and a fairly extensive record of involvement with the local court system.

And then others will employ the “if it’s covered with a towel, it’s mine” strategy (I’ve heard this is how Wyoming was settled.) This strategy is used in the tiny stands which seat about 27 people. The coaches have tried to place limits on just how many seats can be saved, but that rarely works because parents who have been coming to these meets for years do whatever they want. In my humble opinion, anyone who has not seen Wednesday night TV in July since Clinton’s first term has earned the right to park their carcasses wherever they want. It’s how the deck was won.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

No, But Semi-Seriously, Folks...

Because the response to news of the Channeling Peace Initiative has been so strong, I thought I at least owe Mr. Coach and his prospective English Channel-swimming athletes a full blog about their highly admirable endeavor. CliffsNotes’ version: American David and Pakistani Usman, who both swim for Mr. Coach’s college team, are going to do a relay swim across the English Channel in early August (check out the Channeling Peace Initiative Web site). It’s their way of saying, “See? We can all get along in this world if we just try a little harder.”

And by “try a little harder,” they mean “swim 21 miles through very cold salt water.” The rest of us just have to promise to stop killing each other.

It’s a very cool idea, though I’m not really sure how they came up with it. One day, Mr. Coach came home and said something like, “David and Usman are thinking of swimming the English Channel this summer as a show of support for the power of international friendship.” And I thought maybe he was hallucinating because he had ridden his bike for three hours that day, so I just got him his dinner a little faster.

But a few weeks after that, it started coming together with the fundraising and the publicity, and now, as the expression goes in peace-initiative circles, they are so screwed because they are really going to have to do this. And so is Mr. Coach, who will be getting in and out of the pilot boat to pace them. He’s been swimming with me to get in shape for it – and can I just say I do NOT appreciate his sprinting past me when he’s doing his pull-buoy laps (and, yes, you are sprinting).

But the Coach Family is nothing if not supportive of world peace and bridging the gap between cultures. Why, the photo that graces today’s blog is a perfect example of how much we have done to help Usman learn about American culture. You see, it was taken during the November of Usman’s freshman year. Mr. Coach, Usman and I were at the pool one day during Thanksgiving break. He was stranded there at school for the break (although I think he went to David’s for Thanksgiving dinner; I know we had him over for Christmas).

So there he was, doing his workout in Lane 3. And there I was in Lane 6 while Mr. Coach was on deck with our camera. It had already been quite an adjustment for Usman to get comfortable swimming with women, but he was getting there. And on that day, we really helped him “get there.”

I needed a photo of me doing a flip turn for our Christmas newsletter (obviously it’s not your average Christmas newsletter). So I would swim toward the wall, do a flip turn and Mr. Coach would try to snap a picture at the right time. You could just about hear poor Usman’s sphincter slamming shut every time Mr. Coach shouted, “Nope, you gotta keep your butt in the air longer! Let’s try it again, but slower!”

Well, eventually we got our shot and thankfully Usman didn’t quit the team or need psychotherapy. And he’s done a lot since then to educate us about his country and culture.

Now he and David are going to do a lot to educate us about the power of international friendship. I can think of easier ways they could accomplish that, but I doubt I could think of a better way.