SWIMNEWS ONLINE: March 1996 Magazine Articles

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David P. Hillgrove

These days, parents are justifiably concerned that their children are inextricably linked with boring, mindless activities that rot their souls, such as Nintendo, cable TV, and listening to Rush Limbaugh. In an effort to avoid any semblance of child abuse, parents spend a considerable amount of grey matter trying to discern the best use of their child's time. They often settle for the popular choice. This can be a mistake.

Swimming, swim teams, and swim meets are hazardous to your health. Run, do not walk, away from the very idea, and engage your children in anything but. Avoid this black hole of energy for as long as possible. However, if you are like us, you've already been sucked into it and must find a way to survive. And that is why I'm here. That, and to live my life as a table worker at swim meets.

First and foremost, swim teams are all about swim practices. And swim practices are all about time choices: come to practice or quit the team. When is practice, you ask? When are you awake? When were you hoping to sleep? And, by the way, how are you and the smell of chlorine?

So, your children make the team (the only way you cannot make a swim team is to be made of sponge), and they practise daily and they learn the intricacies of the strokes. They learn the swim meet rules, putting them way ahead of all adults who have never spent eleven hours a day participating on a swim team, and they prepare for that ever-important Swim Meet.

Swim Meet is derived from Latin and is loosely translated as "Bringing together hosts of suburban families for the purpose of selling lots o' baked goods. It is here that too many cars for a parking lot descend on a swimming pool that does not have enough square footage to handle the flow of families, so that too many children can swim in a pool without enough lanes to allow the meet to last less than six hours. Furthermore, there is a government regulation that requires that for every able-bodied fanny needing to sit down (ages 35 and older), there must be less than 1/6 the number of chairs available. And they all have to be mysteriously wet."

You're missing a major parental moment unless you've tried to observe a loved one in a swim meet. Besides the loudspeaker that drowns out overhead jet noise, besides the children of unknown origin running around madly for no particular purpose other than to give parents examples of how their children should not behave (what do you mean that was my child?), besides frantic adults in charge rushing around wondering when the planning broke down, you are entitled to the joy of watching your child compete in a wholesome sport designed to build character.

So you endure five hours of swim meet for that twenty-one seconds of your child performing THE task for which he has prepared more thoroughly than he will for his College Boards. And most notably, he almost misses the starter's signal because he is waving frantically to mom and dad, sister and brother, Aunt Cecilia and Uncle Mert, Grandmother Lange, and Cousin Bertha.

Fathers are required to operate a video camera, and are specifically mandated to step directly in front of every other father who has waited hours for his own child to finally swim this event. And you must shout. This is key to swim meets, shouting. You have to holler and scream and shout and encourage your little swimming buddy. You have to holler involved and intricate instructions to them ("The guy on your right is closing fast; don't forget to angle your head 47 degrees when taking a breath; reach and pull, reach and pull; look both ways before crossing the street, and never eat sushi!") while they-and I can't emphasize this enough-cannot hear us!

We are topside, shouting to wake the dead (although the P.A. system drowns us out, while killing all inner ear bacteria), and the consummate swimmer has his head submerged in water that is being filled up by approximately 300 people sending sound molecules racing through it. Between his heavy breathing, the muscle exertion, the turning of his head for breathing, and the thrill of competition, the child hears nothing. We, however, find a way to vent the stress and anxiety of the swim meet phenomenon without realizing it, by living vicariously through our swimmers, and screaming like madmen.

Poolside action. For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Event after event is made up of heat after heat after heat after heat, for stroke after stroke after stroke, for various age groups. (The least they could do is throw in some sea creatures-serpents, eels, snapping turtles-to ease the monotony of everyone's kid swimming in a straight line down the pool.) I took particular interest in the little children's events, not only because they are so cute, but also because I have a child who is probably the cutest, and she competed and I stood and hollered loud enough to collapse a lung.

Following each completed race, parents by the score leap over the very barriers designed to keep them away in the first place, and-important here-knocking judges and timers out of the way, wrap their little darling up in a towel (for fear of an Arctic wind whipping through the recreation centre). No matter how poorly they performed, the parent must heap bountiful praise on their offspring while they envision the Olympics. Then they are whisked off to celebrate with 250 grams of fat in snack bar delights.

Somewhere, throughout all of this madness, is at least one person who actually knows what is going on. Bestowed with the title "Clerk of the Course," this person has a vast amount of swim meet knowledge and experience. This person must also have either ingested hallucinogenic drugs, or never taken them, I forget. It takes years to become a Clerk of the Course, because one must have a thorough understanding of swimming regulations, swim meet operation standards, total quality management, and a recipe for chocolate chip brownies that will help to pay for a new diving board.

Generally, by the time individuals have put in enough time and sweat equity to become Clerk of the Course, their own children have grown, graduated from college, and produced offspring, having given up swimming years before. Most Clerks are not aware of this, and because of the invaluable service they provide to swim teams across the land, it is a felony to inform them of these facts. Their contributions are simply too great.

Finally, mercifully, it is all over. As the parking lots empty, minivans give way to adolescents straining to get home before sunrise. With children asleep in the back, one tends to get a wee bit philosophical. It is difficult to wax poetically on swim meets. I really did enjoy it as a situation where adults collectively organize to produce competition for our kids. I do like to see children trying to win races; I think that is good for all. I like watching latency-staged pre-adolescents experiment with social rules and boundaries.

I am not sure how I am with two commonplace happenings. There is the applause for the child who finished four minutes behind everyone else and has to keep swimming while his competitors have caught a flight to Maine. And, particularly gloomy, for every five kids whose parents are right there for them when they exit the pool, there is the one child who emerges-freezing-to no one. For all the moms and dads in attendance, this young stroker is on his own. He is easy to spot but heartbreaking to watch.

With one meet under my belt, I am a vet. I will subsist this summer on a steady diet of loud noise and snack bar cuisine. I will learn thirteen new ways to deny "just one more dollar" to my offspring. I will deal with the long-term effects of chlorine. All for my kids, which, I suspect, is why we are all out here.

And sitting in wet chairs.

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