I began competitive swimming because I had the chance to tag along with my older sister, Ellen, who is three years my senior. I remember my first practice, where I struggled to complete a length of the pool, and my first meet, where I placed third in the 25 yard freestyle after hanging on the pool gutter at least once. Starting my second year, I fell in love with swimming butterfly and, given its relative unpopularity with my teammates, it became my specialty.
In our home town of Dundee, Illinois, the swim team that was available was our local Park District and was summers only. The practices and meets we had were perhaps the most fun I ever had with swimming. Our coaches were mostly forgettable and Dundee was chronically the doormat of the Fox Valley Swim Conference, but no one had a better time on the team bus ride to and from places like DeKalb, St. Charles and West Chicago. Every other year or so, lightning would strike and Dundee would actually win a meet; the unfamiliarity to us of winning a meet resulted in a celebration that would typically be reserved for winning the World Series. Those were unforgettable times.
There wasn’t an indoor pool in Dundee for many years, so to improve and swim year-round, I joined a YMCA team in Elgin, a few miles south of us, when I was nine. Our pool time was limited to an hour and a half, twice a week, plus a meet on Saturday afternoons. Our coaches were better, the team was stronger because it had a larger drawing area, but there was a high hassle cost to our car pooling parents. Between the pick-up and drop-off circuit and the drive to Elgin, it was more than 30 minutes each way, and the length of the practice meant a lot of time in the car for the unlucky driver, which was too often my mother.
As most of the YMCA swimmers migrated to high school programs by the time we were freshmen, those of us who were left in the YMCA program found that the numbers (and the competition) got pretty thin. The quality of competition fell off considerably and the only reliable competition I would have was at the YMCA State Meet. The rest of the time, you were racing against the clock, which was a grind week to week, but slowly we progressed.
Swimming is a unique sport in that it is absolutely objective. There is a defined length of an event and there is a stopwatch. There isn’t a judge to determine style points as with diving or gymnastics, and there isn’t a coach to decide that his son ought to be the starting pitcher just because the team chemistry is better. For me, swimming has always been about competing, both with yourself and with the other guy. I didn’t always win, but I loved to race.
And so I spent several years with two workouts a week over the winter season. I wasn’t improving much; I needed a lot more pool time, and I needed a coach who was focused on training and not on managing a pool full of eight-year-olds. Nothing against the little kids, but I needed more.
See you at the pool.