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
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
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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