Every four years we have the opportunity to marvel at the dominance that is US Olympic swimming. I’m not sure what most people experience when those parka-donning, goggle-wearing pseudo humans start sauntering up and down the pool deck. As for me, I always get a bit nostalgic remembering my swimming days. Considering that my competitive “career” lasted only six years, it seems strange that such a short period of time left such a lasting impression. Perhaps it was the phase of life, or that it was the first thing at which I’d found moderate success. Whatever the case, swimming made an impression on me that returns with each buzz of the starter and each whiff of chlorine.
For me, competitive swimming started earlier than most realize, and ended later than most know. It might surprise folks to know that my mother doesn’t swim. It’s not that she doesn’t know how, it’s that she’s deathly afraid of the water. Somewhat ironic, then, that as a young family we found ourselves in the LAND OF TEN THOUSAND FREAKING LAKES! As much as my mom hates swimming, my dad loves fishing. So, the first opportunity that he had to live and work in Minnesota, he jumped at it. I was two, maybe three years old when we first set foot in our Champlin house, fresh out of the thriving Midwest metropolis of Mishawaka, IN.
Vowing not to pass her fear of water on to her kids, mom registered my sister and me for swimming lessons each summer. One session, only, though, because two would cut into our lake-time just a little too much. I always looked forward to swimming lessons because it was easy. Super easy. And, if you finished early, sometimes they would let you jump off the diving board or dive for rings in the ten foot section of the pool. The only day I hated was “safety day” when we had to give CPR to the dummy that everyone else had just given CPR to.
My end-of-swim-lessons evaluation was pretty much the same every year: “Strong swimmer, recommend promotion to level X”. X, of course being the next level above the one I had just mastered. Even with these results, I was constantly falling behind my classmates who had opted for both sessions instead of our usual one. I never liked that feeling.
In truth, I wasn’t really losing any progress. Most of the time we spent away from lessons we spent swimming in Leech Lake. Kristy and I (and later Josh, too) lived to swim up there. There weren’t many alternatives, but we didn’t need any. I don’t even remember how we spent so many hours just splashing around in the water. I do remember that my grandfather had a thermometer hanging from the main resort dock, and we’d traipse out there with him to check the surface temperature early in the season. We had a rule that the water had to be 70 degrees before we could get in. If it ever happened to reach that mark, we’d all rush back to the cabin to put on our swimsuits. You couldn’t pay me to jump into 70 degree water, now!
But the temperature didn’t matter to us. Sometimes we swam with friends, sometimes alone. Sometimes there was a swimming raft in the water, sometimes there wasn’t. There were always dark rumors about what was lurking beneath the surface. That made it more exciting! One time a kid told us that they put the swimming raft in the water to cover a dead body. Another time, someone with a snorkel mask went down, and came back breathing heavily, describing the raft anchor (an engine block) as looking “just like a skull”. And of course, the usual “What if a Musky bites me?” We reveled in all of that Stand by Me stuff that happens when kids’ imaginations start to intersect with the realities of life. Hours of our youth drained away in that lake, and as we played, our strength in the water increased.
Junior high school where I lived started in 7th grade and went to 9th and high school was 10th-12th. I don’t know why they were segmented this way, but Minnesota has always been progressive with education so maybe it was some kind of grand experiment. Or maybe it was just due to overcrowding in the bursting twin cities suburbs. Whatever the case, I found myself on the Jackson Junior High swimming team in 7th grade. Yes, my junior high had a swimming pool. In fact, it was the same pool where I had taken swimming lessons for years, so the familiarity was nice. Not being incredibly sporty, I don’t remember why I joined the team to begin with. The only other sport I’d ever played was T-ball in kindergarten, and the only thing I remembered about that experience was that it was hot. As described in previous posts, I was not the most athletically gifted child. In fact, you might say I was one of the least athletically gifted children at my grade level, so the fact that I ever joined a sport still surprises me to this day. I assume it was after some gentle prodding from my parents, but I could be wrong about that.
My junior high “team” wasn’t so much a team as it was a bunch of swimmers divided down the middle into those who were pretty darn good and those who were swimming because we didn’t know what else to do. I fell distinctly into the 2nd category. I remember the practices being tough. I remember riding home on the activities bus in the dark, cold winter of Minnesota, hair still wet from the pool. I remember during one of those rides – probably more than one – thinking “why am I doing this?” I remember telling my mom that I wanted to quit. I remember her talking me out of it, ending with the not-so-subtle message “I don’t want you to be a quitter”. Ok, that may not be a direct quote, but that’s what my 7th grade mind heard.
There were some good times. I made a few friends and goofed around on the bench a lot waiting for my events, I finished all of my races (important), and I watched as the best swimmers on the team obliterated the field in the 400 freestyle. The 400 was the longest race in junior high, and we had two guys who were especially good at it. One was a 9th grader, and one was my age – his protégé, so to speak. Being in the “good swimmers club”, neither were especially interested in interacting with me, but I watched them closely. They were like iron men to me, and probably the reason that I chose to focus on distance swimming initially in high school.
Don’t get me wrong, I was afraid of the 400 free. Everybody in my group of friends was. It was like a punishment to get assigned to that race. I didn’t even want to swim 400 consecutive yards in a practice, let alone in competition. It was quite the surprise, then, when I learned that my dad had been talking to the coach and they had mutually decided that I should try racing the 400 free. Dad tells me that I was not very happy with him for doing that, and he’s probably right. The 400 was for the good swimmers, not for me. I was there for the 50 free or the 100 breaststroke, not the marathon of all junior high events. I don’t remember the outcome of my 400 freestyle, other than I survived. But I think on some level, it was important that I swam that race. I proved (to myself) that I could do it, and as my swimming career progressed, my confidence did, too. Focusing on distance events in high school wasn’t such a daunting idea since I’d already competed in similar races.
Most of my seventh and eighth grade seasons are a blur. I got used to practices, I showed up for meets, I messed around and I watched other people win. In junior high, the big meet at the end of the year was the district meet. We called it “districts”. It’s the time when all the schools in your area compete in one big meet. I had one district meet highlight my eighth grade year. The very last event of the meet was a freestyle relay – probably the 200, but I don’t really remember. I was paired with three other kids from the “also swam” club for the final event. The teams and crowd were raucous as the entire meet built to this event, and every school participated. I remember a rush of adrenaline as I finished my leg of the race. We didn’t win the relay that day, but we all turned in personal best times, finished above expectations, and more importantly, we were all eighth graders. I remember the coach coming down to our lane, beaming, asking “are you going to be back next year?” To which, we all exclaimed “Yes!” excitedly. It was clear to us: coach thought that we had a shot at winning that relay with another year of training. It was a banner day for the “also swam’s”! It was the first time I’d actually had fun competing, and finally my mom’s advice to “stick with it” was starting to pay off. With that success, a competitiveness was awakened. All of a sudden, those iron men who I’d always admired from a distance weren’t quite so distant. Questions started swirling in my mind. What would it feel like to take one of them down? To be a hero for the also-swam’s?
That relay was the last event I swam for the mighty Jackson Jaguars. Unknown to me at the time, my dad was to be offered a promotion in a few months. We would be moving back to Indiana, and instead of returning to junior high, I would be starting high school in Lebanon that fall.
That was a tumultuous time. Moving at that age is difficult, and in a time where you couldn’t communicate with your old friends online, it was pretty much like starting over. But that first year in Lebanon, I often thought of my old teammates, about how I’d (unintentionally) lied to my coaches about coming back, and I wondered how that relay team finished at districts without me.
This is a prologue to the series on my competitive swimming years