I’m swimming laps on a breezy summer morning when I look up to see ducks in the pool. I like to think I’m good at sharing, but this is ridiculous. I scare the ducks away and keep going, but then stop to think: How often have they been in here?
Over my 12 years on swim teams and 4 years coaching, I have learned that there are many things it’s best not to think about when it comes to my favorite sport. I’ve been thinking about them while swimming laps in the mornings. Some of these taboo questions include: If chlorine turns my hair green, what does it do to my internal organs? Could Speedos get any smaller? I have lots of new swimmers on the the team I coach this summer, and they have lots of questions. So here is what I would tell them about swimming before they get started. Ok, not really.
Coach Martha’s Swim Team Survival Guide
1. Don’t feel badly if you gain time at meets. They are so long that you have actually aged noticeably since you arrived.
People who don’t swim are often shocked to learn that a meet can easily last 12 hours. Easily. Summer meets last only four or five, but it’s so hot that the kids can’t stand on the pool deck in their bare feet without getting second degree burns, and coaches assign new mental significance to the quote “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.” Many summer races last approximately 30 seconds (winter ones can last up to 40 minutes for the 1,000). This means that some of the fun of meets for swimmers is that you spend 90% of your time hanging out. This is also part of the misery for parents. I’m pretty sure one of Dante’s levels of hell looks like a team area during hour #5 of a swim meet. Antsy children throw caps, goggles, footballs and undersized athletes back and forth, eat pasta and half-melted powerbars and gorge themselves with artificially colored candy that fuels their energy just long enough for them to experience an extreme energy dive directly before their races. A tired coach lays down for a few minutes only to be awakened by a child dancing on her stomach and making hissing noises to show off his lime green mouth. Don’t worry about it. I’m sure he’ll be even more chill after he tries the energy drink his dad just got him.
2. Records were meant to be broken (Please break mine)
My only remaining high school swimming record is from a race I only swam once. It is proudly displayed on a massive board over the pool at one of my city’s most popular YMCA’s. I feel like wearing my swim cap over my face every time I see it. The time isn’t exactly something to be proud of. To be honest, I swam the event on a dare of sorts. Dares get me in so much trouble and apparently haunt me through college. When I was 15, I became horribly sick at a swim meet. I’ll spare you the details–suffice to say I lost several pounds while I was there. I missed my scheduled race because I was in the bathroom. When I arrived back poolside, my coach informed me of this fact and said he had entered me into the hardest race at the meet instead–a race that is no big deal for many USS swimmers, but that is a death sentence for teenage girls with digestive tracks that are randomly in self-destruct mode. After letting me dread this race for an hour (during which I got to know the bathroom even better), he laughingly let me know that he had been joking and said something along the lines that I wasn’t up for it. Oh coach, I’m laughing so hard I’m throwing up. Furious, I swam it anyway. I don’t remember a lot of it. At any rate, the only reason the record is still there is because the coach can’t get anyone else to swim it. I’ve tried offering rewards, but no luck.
3. That’s not a white swimsuit. His legs are that pale.
Speedos are one of the worst ideas known to mankind. Let’s put our largest athletes in a small stretchy piece of fabric. Let’s encourage them to buy their suits 2 sizes too small so that they eliminate drag. Now, let’s put that stretchy piece of fabric in a toxic liquid chemical famous for destroying fabric so that we can make sure the fabric is always nearly see-thru. Perfect. Most guys are understandably uncomfortable wearing a speedo unless they are at a meet. Unless they are in the habit of laying out in their underwear, this means that they always have horrible tan lines. On one of my teams growing up, the boys had “Speedo Day” once a year. It was horrible. The event became less about speed and more about terrorizing teenage girls who have no brothers. I did get one good picture out of it, though…
One of my favorite things about swimming is that boys and girls get to be together on the same team. This rarely happens in soccer, basketball, baseball, etc. This awesome aspect of swimming can also lead you to do some really dumb things if you are competitive by nature, however. As a coach, I can use the fact that girls will kill themselves to beat boys during practice and meets. Put boys and girls in two different lanes and give them the same workout. I guarantee you they will swim it faster. Combine two events into one heat of boys and girls–everyone will drop time. A desperate attempt to beat a guy lead my older sister to vomit after a race of corkscrew (one stroke on your stomach, one on your back, over and over and over). It lead me to begin to black out after a 50 no-breath. I have been pulled up from the bottom of the pool by my hair in one of dozens of cutthroat games of Sharks and Minnows, and kicked senseless in life-threatening water polo matches. Who wins? It doesn’t really matter. Somewhere along the way of trying to defeat and destroy each other, you become best friends. I’m sure there is an analogy for life in there.
5. Don’t take mafia personally.
During those epic swim meets, kids play Spoons, Go Fish, Poker, and, most famously, Mafia. This game involves drawing an identity, then closing your eyes. The mafia gets to open his eyes and choose someone to “kill.” The sheriff gets to then open his eyes and make a guess arrest. The doctor then gets a turn to chose someone to “heal.” The rest of the people are townspeople, which means you keep your eyes closed for a really long time and wait to die. If you are me, you don’t have to wait long. I don’t know if my Italian last name makes me suspicious, or if it was because I was usually one of only a few girls playing the game, but I am famous for being slaughtered in the first round. If you survive or are healed, everyone gets to make accusations and vote on who they think the mafia is. The mafia spends this time convincing townspeople to kill off each other instead of him. If I ever survived the first round, I was always accused and promptly executed after the first voting session. I distinctly remember being voted off during one male-dominated match with everyone screaming “Witch! Burn her! Burn her!” It was scarring to a 12-year-old. If this happens to you, don’t get offended. Just put pepper and Parmesan cheese in their drinks when they go up to the salad bar at the restaurant after the meet.
6. You look awful. But Everyone else looks like you.
The horrible thing about swimming is you have to wear a swimsuit, a swim cap and goggles. The awesome thing is that everyone else is wearing a swim cap, a swim suit and goggles. This means that during the end of the year slideshow, when the picture of you on the blocks taken from behind appears, you can pretend it’s your best friend and loudly say, “Looking tough! That was such a good race, girl.” You don’t have to worry that the lifeguard who looks like Adonis or Apollo is seeing you in a rubber skull cap that rips out your hair and mini eye suction cups that leave you with red circles around your eyes, because there is no way he will recogonize you when you are in street clothes. The fact that you end up looking horrible in practice is actually a really cool aspect of the sport. You can’t wear a speck of makeup and your hair is completely covered. Any friends you make aren’t choosing you because you are easy on the eyes. It is best not to comment on the unattractiveness of your teammates, however. Any girl who has ever said “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on” to a male teammate when she runs into him at church knows exactly what I mean. I’m hoping I’m not the only one who has done this.
This is just a rough intro guide to swimming. If I were to broaden this post to post-meet activities, I could offer advice about not launching spit wads into the salad bar and how to negate any calories you burned in the 8-hour meet within your first 5 minutes at Fazoli’s. You’ll have to figure some stuff out on your own, though, and other things you’ll never quite understand. Just take a deep breath, and keep swimming: You’re not dyslexic, your lap counter is confused/texting. And you’re right, that’s a firework, not lighting. But the lifeguard wants to go home.
Want to read more about swimming? Check out my recap of my first season as head coach last year here.