Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lane Matters

Aristotle was onto something when he started categorizing the hoo-ha out of every living and non-living thing. It’s only human nature to assign ourselves categories and if you need proof of that, all you have to do is look at a swim practice. The urge to sort themselves out by lane is primal with swimmers. You have these nice little slots to put yourselves in, so naturally you put some effort into deciding who goes in what slot and why.

Now, granted, most of the time it’s the coaches who decide who goes where. But for warmups, warmdowns and less structured workouts where you can choose your own lanemates, this is serious stuff. It’s like picking a fraternity or a sorority, except the workouts make it seem like the hazing never ends.

Lane selection can be competitive, sometimes even judgmental, and a certain type of prejudice called “lane-ism” can develop. I know of some high-school teams in the area who get rather hoity-toity about who gets shunted to the outside, slower lanes. To be a “Lane Sixer,” in one team’s lexicon, is a terrible thing. I don’t know, but if I were them I’d be afraid of the kids in those outside lanes. I’ve usually found the outside-lane dwellers to be intelligent and sarcastic. Show me a bright smart aleck who has found a reason to work hard at a sport they never win at, and I’ll show you someone who’s going to be signing Lane Three’s paychecks some day.

But with Mr. Coach’s teams, I’ve noticed that the swimmers mostly sort themselves out by communication patterns. Gloomy whiners (the “Eeyores, ” we call them) like to whine to each other. Dumb-joke specialists flock together and are ignored by the lanes on either side. Chirpy Pollyanna types are happiest together and no-nonsense masochists (often your distance swimmers) are unhappiest together. And Mr. Coach has identified a subspecies he calls the “Meek Tweezlies” who go wherever the Alpha Males or Females in their lives tell them to go.

Many lanemates develop bonds outside the pool as well. One group of Lane Four swimmers, past and present, will go out to dinner at local restaurants together and apparently are quite strict about not letting non-Lane-Four types dine with them on these occasions. Another recent group dubbed themselves “Lane Fun” and they’ve been quite aggressive with the recruiting. But that’s OK because they help each other create a happy water home.

The only type of lane you don’t like to see form is a Loveboat Lane because that always ends up being more like a Titanic Lane. Nothing sinks an aquatic romance faster than sloppy kickboard skills and fart bubbles. So if your coach tells you that you can’t swim with your GF or BF, just say thank you and go find yourself another lane. You’ve got plenty of options.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Last weekend, Mr. Coach had to make a choice: He could either attend the American Swimming Coaches Association World Clinic in Ft. Lauderdale or head back to his alma mater, Illinois State University, to attend a men’s swimming and diving team reunion to honor their old coach. It was a no-brainer.

(Besides, he’s done South Florida in late summer before. Nobody needs to do that twice unless they’re trying to lose weight from sweating.)

So Mr. Coach talked Little Mr. Coach and me into coming along with him, and we had a jolly time of it. There’s nothing like walking into a room full of balding or gray-haired guys and being able to still see exactly what kind of people they were back when they fit Size 28 Speedos.

Even scarier is asking someone what their event was and their answer is pretty much exactly what you would have guessed. 200 fly guys have a pensive look to them, like they’re still looking for the wall. Backstrokers are wired kind of loose, although a couple I met had swerved in a more introspective direction. Divers – still neatly tucked and pressed. Sprinters – still loopy as all get out. Interestingly I didn’t encounter any breaststrokers, which I guess means they’ve either become hermits or have a short life span.

The reason why the group was balding or graying was simple: The ISU men’s swimming and diving program was among the earliest casualties of the misapplication of Title IX. Though the Act of Congress indisputably created much-needed opportunities for female athletes in the U.S., unfortunately some schools chose (and still choose) to balance out their male and female athlete numbers by cutting sports like men’s swimming, diving, gymnastics and wrestling. ISU lopped off all of those in the early 1980s.
But these guys weren’t there to dwell on that, which is admirable. They were there to honor their old coach with equal parts affection and insults. You’d have to know their old coach to understand why. And a lot of people do.

Archie Harris is a well-known figure in U.S. and college swimming. If you don’t know him from when he swam, you know him from when he coached. If you don’t know him from his amazing work with the Easter Seals Foundation, then you know him as one of the tall old guys who have run the College Swim Coaches Forum in Ft. Lauderdale each winter for the last 128 years. Archie wasn’t the tallest of the Old Farts (as Mr. Coach affectionately and bravely dubbed them), but he was easily the loudest. And they all have an unerring sense for figuring out who the most authority-fearing and nervous member of a team is – and then going after them for imaginary infractions. They tried getting me once for bringing a glass juice bottle into the facility. OK, they were right, but they didn’t have to be so loud about it.

Archie is 86 now and he (and his wife Harriet) retired from running the Clinic about three years ago. My husband was very keen to have our son meet one of the most pivotal people in his own coaching journey. On the first night of the reunion, we gathered for a social at a hotel. Mr. Coach introduced our son to Archie who gently held his elbow and pulled him close.

“Do you say your prayers every night, young man?” Archie asked our son. And I got a little tear in my eye, watching my son nod nervously and I thought with just a hint of melancholy, “Oh dear, Archie’s finally gone soft around the edges.”

“That’s good,” Archie told him and he pulled him in even closer.

“Tonight,” he said, “when you say your prayers…I want you to get down on your knees and thank the Lord…that you take after your mother.”

Now, I ask you -- who would not want to swim for a guy like that?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lifeguard Cert

I realize that, north of the Equator at least, I’m a little off-season with a blog about lifeguard certification. Most people get certified in the spring before the high-demand outdoor summer season begins. But we recently made Little Miss Coach get certified, so it’s still fresh in my mind.

The critical verb there is “made” because, while I know my daughter appreciates the opportunity to earn money for herself, the reality is Mr. Coach and I have been waiting for the day when we could have our own personal lifeguard. We’re not the first parents in our university community to do this. There are others who’ve gotten their kids certified for the express purpose of having a backup lifeguard for those days when the assigned lifeguard doesn’t show up. At a small pool with a small community of daily swimmers, it happens. But there’s nothing like being able to say, “Oh, I’ll just call Herbert and get him over here. He’s only sleeping.” And then, about 15 minutes later, you get in to swim while surly Herbert sits and watches and prays that his dad goes under just so he can not rescue him.

And now we can do the same thing to Little Miss Coach! For her certification, she got tag-team taught by her father and his assistant coach who are both Red Cross certified lifeguard instructors. Boy, was she psyched!

And she should be. Mr. Coach is very highly regarded in local lifeguard-certification circles, and most especially for his victim skills. As part of the certification process, the would-be lifeguards have to jump in and rescue drowning victims. Mr. Coach has two specialties: One is the Victim Who Doesn’t Float and the other is the Victim Who Fights Back.

Both “victimizations” are brilliant, but other instructors don’t like to bring Mr. Coach in for just any group of would-be lifeguards. That would be like using a howitzer to go bird shooting. No, rather, they tend to hold him in reserve for their big strapping college guys (and a few gals) who are going for the open-water lifeguarding jobs where they’re more likely to encounter difficult victims.

Your municipal and country-club pool guards might encounter a modified version of either the dead-weight victim who goes right to the bottom or the spastic-meltdown victim who could break your nose in a panic. But for the most part, they’re only going to be dealing with unsupervised 5-year-olds in the deep end.

In the open-water situations, that’s where a guard could go down with the victim if he or she can’t maintain control of the situation. So if a guard can get past Mr. Coach, you can rest assured they can wrangle in a drunken 27-year-old who can’t swim but decided to wade out over his head to retrieve a Frisbee.

But, for lack of any other victims this time, Mr. Coach was deployed on his own daughter. He decided to go with the Victim Who Doesn’t Float which I thought was an audacious choice, given that Little Miss Coach barely cracks 100 pounds on the scale. However I can understand the logic: Her skull is just as titanium-hard as his and the two of them have given each other black eyes before with accidental head butts. A Victim Who Fights Back would just be asking for another black eye.

So she brought in her dead-weight father without mishap, earned her lifeguard card, and now will be at our lap-swim beck and call. Who said parenthood was all give and no take? Certainly not us!

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Division III (a.k.a. "D3") swimming is a breed unto itself. For those not familiar with this term, it refers to a particular category of U.S. universities under the umbrella of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (or “NCAA” to those in the know… “NCs” if you want make it sound like you’re a college sports veteran.)

Anyway, the NCAA is divided into three divisions: Division I schools tend to be larger universities and, as long as they have the money (an increasingly shaky assumption), they can give out sports scholarships. Division II schools tend to be smaller public universities and they also can give out sports scholarship money, though not as much.

Division III is what I call the “Chariots of Fire” division: Its founding philosophy derives from ye not-so-olde days when sport was viewed as a lovely part of a well-rounded lifestyle for which monetary compensation was viewed with disdain (like in the movie “Chariots of Fire”). Where a student-athlete spent his or her day developing a research project to restructure a small East Asian nation’s debt load, completing a vigorous workout in the pool while discussing Emily Dickinson’s mid-career poetry between sets with the other sprinters, and then dining with local dignitaries on oysters, terrapin soup and roast duckling, whilst using the correct utensils.

There also used to be a requirement that coaches of Division III teams had to be academic professors. That died out a couple of decades ago, though there are a few genuine professor/coaches left, including Mr. Coach.

Division III as originally designed was a lovely sepia-toned vision of "mens sana in corpore sano” (that’s Latin for “a sound mind in a sound body”). But “D3” has pretty much gone Technicolor and High-Definition now in its pursuit of “citius, altius, fortius” (that’s Olympic Latin for “swifter, higher, stronger”). Consequently we’re left with a division that is peppered with programs where athlete-students don’t have the time to do anything other than eat, sleep, swim and attend a few classes.

But not all of them are like this. There are still a few Division III programs where you get an intriguing mix of overachievers who are determined to cram everything into their days they possibly can…and then some. About this time of the year is when Mr. Coach finds himself having many, many discussions about time management with his young charges.

“Do you think I can take four science labs this semester, Coach?” one will ask him as they sit in his office.

“Only if your goal is to have a nervous breakdown by Halloween,” Mr. Coach will reply.

“But only one of them overlaps with practice on Wednesdays.”

“Even if you weren’t swimming, you wouldn’t take four labs in one semester,” Mr. Coach points out. “If you do, then I have to notify Counseling Services.”

“OK,” the student-athlete will pause and reconsider. “How about three labs, one Habitat for Humanity house-building project on Sunday afternoons, and the first bassoon seat in the university orchestra?”

That’s when Mr. Coach reaches for the can of wasabi peas in his top drawer. It’s not easy, but somebody has to coach these kids.