Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Break in Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Please forgive this gratuitously personal interruption in my regularly scheduled programming, but a journalist is nothing if not timely with the late-breaking news.

Just a few hours ago, a story went out on the CNN.com newswire about the Channeling Peace Initiative. I've written about this endeavor before on this blog, and just this past Sunday I packed my husband, Mr. Coach aka Dick Hawes, off at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m. to get to the airport for his journey to England. Two of his Ohio Wesleyan University swimmers, one an American and the other a Pakistani, have been preparing to swim the English Channel for a two-fold purpose: one, to demonstrate the power of international friendship to create peace in troubled times; and two, to raise money for the Doctors Without Borders program.

Last Friday, we learned that the British government had denied Pakistani student Usman's application for a visa entry on the grounds that they could not confirm he was a student at an American university and that his sole purpose for entering the U.K. was to swim the Channel. They made this decision despite the fact that his U.S. student visa was attached to the passport which they reviewed and that his contract with the Channel Swimming Association also was included.

At this point, my husband, American student David and David's mom Tami are in Dover, U.K. Usman is still at home in Pakistan. Each day we all try navigating some new tack in our attempts to get Usman his visa to join them. A small army of alumni and friends from American and Pakistani communities have all been helping work the channels, if you will, that they have to various government agencies. The CNN article was written by the stepdaughter of David's high-school swim coach.

The young men's assigned window of time to attempt the swim opened on July 28 and will run through Aug. 6. Plan A remains getting Usman there. Plan B emerged just the other day -- when the guys weren't keeping themselves from going stir crazy in their respective locations by taking Facebook quizzes like "Which Victoria's Secret Angel Am I? (David is Allesandra Ambrosia and Usman is Heidi Klum). Plan B involves David attempting a solo crossing (with my husband pacing him) while Usman swims in either a lake or a pool in Pakistan at the same time. The two teams supporting them would be in touch via cell phone.

My husband thinks that David can pull it off if he has to. They've been training each day in the Channel since they got there. Dick reports that it's not the water that's tough to deal with. It's the "beach" you have to walk across to get into the water -- it's all jagged rocks and pebbles. And he says the "ice cream headache" from the slightly nippy water (low 60-degrees Fahrenheit) goes away pretty quickly. Well, isn't that comforting to know?

So I tell you all this to solicit your prayers and positive thoughts for the guys' success. It's more than just a little ironic that one country not feeling very friendly toward residents of another country is what threatens to undermine David and Usman's original plan to celebrate the power of international friendship. But it's more than just a little fitting that friendship will find a way to make something good happen, no matter what the obstacles are.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Bullpen (aka The Seventh Circle of Hell)

Until the last night of summer swim league championships this past Tuesday, I had thought, “Maybe I’ll blog this week about how much fun it is to sit and eavesdrop on the kids, as they hang out in the team camp, waiting for their events.” This is how I get caught up on all the latest high school gossip and on my Pokemon card-trading strategies (Squirtle eventually evolves into Blastoise who can pull water cannons out of his shell and has 100 health points. Who knew?).

But then the mom who rounds up volunteers came looking for people to work the bullpen on the last night of championships, and there went my peaceful evening of eavesdropping. Oddly enough, in all my years of swim parenting and coach spousing, I had yet to work a bullpen. Now I know what I’ve been missing and I have the aching back and roughed-up vocal chords to remind me, just in case I forget.

The bullpen, for those of you who know how to evade volunteer coordinators, is the place at a meet site where swimmers are corralled, sorted into events and heats, told they can pee in the water if they really have to go that bad but they cannot leave the bullpen for the bathroom now, and then marched out to a pool deck where, half naked, shivering and surrounded by fully clothed, screaming adults with video cameras, they have been conditioned to fling themselves into cold water when a buzzer is sounded and they cannot get out again until they are exhausted and disoriented by oxygen deprivation. It’s like a cockfight, only less humane.

But I wouldn’t know how the pool part of the evening actually went that last night because I was working the bullpen. We had 64 chairs set up under a tent, eight rows of eight chairs each. For a little while, it was only 63 chairs until we figured out that some woman (in a Herm├Ęs scarf, I feel compelled to note) had stolen one so she could sit and watch her little muffin swim in the kiddie pool. I sent the bullpen mom with the loudest voice to go get it back. It wasn’t easy but she got the job done.

We chased hovering parents out of the bullpen – also not an easy job. Yes, I realize that all this chaos could be emotionally scarring for little Dagmar or Robespierre, but two minutes before we ship them out is not the time to rethink your decision to sign them up for the swim team.

We stared down TWA (Tweens With Attitudes) and threatened them with disqualification if their eyes didn’t stop rolling in their sockets. We negotiated with coaches who insisted that “the other half of the B relay is here…somewhere…they just might not make it to the bullpen…but don’t scratch them.”

And we did have the heart-warming experience of being able to put one alternate into a race when a kid did not show up for finals. Those first and second alternates are the ones who tug at your heartstrings because they do show up and stand outside the bullpen, waiting patiently and hoping against hope that they’ll get another chance to swim. As with my beloved 6 & Under swimmers, these are the kids who remind me why an aching back is a small price to pay for inspiration.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Birthday Workout

I don’t know if other people are the same, but I put quite a bit of effort into planning my Birthday Workout.

This ritualistic homage to my own birth started when I was a high school runner. I decided that, since I was born at 6:33 p.m., I needed to be running at that exact moment every year on my birthday. And for many years I did just that -- until one day in my early 30s when I suffered a terrible realization. For all those years of birth-moment running, I had been living in the Eastern U.S. time zone – but I had been born in the Pacific U.S. time zone, which meant I had been running three hours too early every year. I should have been running at 9:33 p.m.

I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out. As anyone who knows me will tell you, details like that don’t usually escape me because my brain is a graveyard for minutiae. Need to know the N.Y. Yankees’ starting lineup for the 1978 World Series? It’s in there. The middle names and birth dates of all my grade school classmates? Yup, they’re still in there, too, taking up space that could be better devoted to remembering when I last changed the oil in the car.

And yet, this detail had eluded me and that irked me to no end. My slavish devotion to the moment of my birth was tainted by operational error.

Well, you say, just wait til 9:33 p.m. Look, I don’t know about you, but by 9:33 on the balmy summer anniversary of my birth, I prefer to be digesting a filet mignon, a twice-baked cheesy potato and a spinach salad with sliced strawberries and Catalina dressing. And I’d rather have a snappy little Shiraz, and not a cocktail of adrenalin and lactic acid, coursing through my veins. In other words, a 9:33 p.m. workout is not an option.

So it was back to the drawing board for the Birthday Workout. Over the course of the next few years, I expanded my workout repertoire to include yoga and swimming. With the Heavy Heart of The Deeply Disillusioned, I continued to do some kind of “special” workout on my birthdays, but I wasn’t feeling the love...until I hit 40 and stumbled onto a new Birthday Workout strategy.

Inspired by my husband’s triathloning, I decided to create my own Birthday Triathlon. That first year, it was 40 minutes of yoga, 40 laps of swimming and 4.0 kilometers of running. Each year, I’d add another minute, length or repetition of whatever I decided to do.

It was after my 44th birthday, two years ago, when I made the swimming segment 44 50s that I realized I had a potential problem. 44 50s wasn’t a problem now, but thinking ahead to, let’s say, my 95th birthday, it might be. I could just see it now: The EMT squad would show up to fish my corpse out of the pool. What would they write for “cause of death” on the official report? “Stupidity.”

So I thought, well, what if I keep adding minutes and repetitions til I get to 50 and then start subtracting them until I zero out on my 100th birthday (when you figure it’ll take the whole day anyway for my 104-year-old husband to serve me my Birthday Dinner)? But that felt too Countdown-ish to Death, so I quickly nixed that idea.

So that leaves me back where I started – working out at the anniversary moment of my birth.

I only have to make one slight modification: We’ll have to move to Hawaii.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

In Praise of 6 and Under

I used to think there was nothing better to watch in all of swimming than the 8-year-old & Under age group. But then our summer swim league added a 6 & Under age group, and suddenly Wednesday nights in July got a whole lot better.

“But, Mrs. Coach!” you say. “You’ve been to national meets and seen amazing feats of swimming. You’ve been to an Olympic Trials meet and seen world records happen. And just last night, you were parked in front of your laptop, watching the U.S. World Championship Trials, live and uninterrupted by commercials. Surely one of those meets was the best thing ever to watch in swimming!”

To which I say, “Have you ever seen a 6 & Under 25-yard backstroke?”

We’re talking two, sometimes three, minutes of dramatic intensity, the likes of which Shakespeare himself couldn’t match. There is always, and I do mean always, the quivering excitement of the start. There are legs and arms akimbo, bouncing off lane lines like protons and neutrons inside a nuclear reactor. There are near-drownings (when was the last time you saw that at an Olympic Trials)? There is the agony of victory when somebody finishes the race with their noggin, and there is the thrill of defeat because last place always gets a rousing and heartfelt ovation from the crowd.

There is not a single kid out there who is not giving it his or her all -- an “all,” I might add, that is accomplished without the assistance of buoyancy-aiding, high-tech suits, although occasionally some of the boys finish without their suits if they didn’t tie the drawstrings tight enough.

And there is not a single kid out there who is going to take that race home with them to fuss and fume and obsess about, because most of them have the attention spans of gnats at this age. They’re only in it for the chili dogs and Cherry Slushies.

None of them are going to flunk a drug test because they bought a “bad batch” of Flintstones Chewables. None of them are academically ineligible to compete because some of them haven’t even started school yet. And the only way any of them will end up in an embarrassing YouTube video is if their parents put it there to show the relatives out in Oregon.

So you can have your world-record swims in perfect pool conditions. You can take your collegiate Division I prospects and give them all ice bags for their blown-out shoulders. You can have your Olympic Hopeful 12-year-olds. The only races I will drop everything to watch this summer are the 6 & Unders: They’re everything that’s great about this sport.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

It’s Never Too Early to Prognosticate

…And finally we get to the centerpiece event of this year’s Tattimuck County Parks and Recreation League Championships – the Boys’ 10-and-Under 100-yard Medley Relay. But to assess the players this year, we have to go back two years to the Boys’ 8-and-Under edition because that’s the last time this particular set of swimmers went head to head.

Two years ago, it was the Killer Sharks of the Mango Park Swim Club who took the title, not so much because they were the fastest quartet but because they were the only team that wasn’t disqualified. Led by backstroker Fred “Floater” Zingermann, the team also featured breaststroker Jonathon “Two-Hand Touch” Wing, butterflyer Charley “Wiggle” Wiggins and anchor freestyler Sam “Scooter” Schnipke. And two years ago, they put together a performance that left even their parents stunned and speechless. Insiders say the Mango Park boys are older and more legal than ever, even though they lost Wing to the country-club league when his dad got a promotion at work. According to their coach, Mindy Schwicker, the game plan is to have Rafael Esterhazy, a 7-year-old with a pituitary-gland disorder and hands the size of dinner plates, swim up an age group for the breaststroke leg.

The Killer Sharks likely will be challenged by their annual nemeses – the Waterbugs of the Waterloo Aquatics Racing Team. The Waterbugs – comprised of backstroke specialist Lindeman Farnhauser, breaststroker Chavis Rodriguez and the interchangeable flyer-freestyler twins, Rick and Dick Postlewaite – have always been something of a wild-card team in the league, prone to record-setting swims one week and flagrant DQs the next. Their own coach, Dorfy McDufferman, has described the team thusly: “One half of this relay is medicated and the other half should be.”

Also challenging for the title might be the Sea Stars of the Southwest Swim and Racquet Club. The Sea Stars are a new team in the league this year, having voluntarily moved over from the country-club league. The Southwest Swim and Racquet Club itself went bankrupt in January but the swim team has continued to practice, using the Pfeiffer-Newton family’s backyard 50-meter pool as its home facility. The Pfeiffer-Newtons’ son Tanqueray is the team’s anchor. While some in the league question whether the young man, who is already shaving hair off many different parts of his body, is actually 10 years old, the threat of legal action from his parents has convinced the league to allow him to compete in this age group. Pfeiffer-Newton is joined on the relay by backstroker Kirk Sphincter-Howland, breaststroker Stansbury Thurman-Dobbs and butterflyer Ashley Hinker-Wheaterman.

Despite the fact that both the Waterbugs and the Sea Stars look better on paper, we’re going to have to stick with the Killer Sharks and pick them to win this year’s title. They have proven, time and again, they have the stubbornness to keep their strokes legal and the slow reaction time to prevent false starts.