Sunday mornings are often the time when weekend athletes get to compete. That’s when the streets are most quiet and facilities like high school pools are open for use by people outside the school community.
This weekend, the vibe inside the natatorium (a fancy word for pool) at St. Charles (Il) High School was warm, humid and human. Swimmers appreciate at least a reasonably warm climate. Walking around in skin-thin layers of wet swimsuit is torture otherwise. Plus goose pimples from chill temperatures are no one’s favorite hobby. They represent stiffening muscles as well, and that’s not the best situation for swimmers.
Granted, open water swimmers deal with chill water all the time. That’s why wetsuits were invented. Conserving body heat is crucial when water temps dip below 70 degrees or so.
Yet it’s not good when the water is too warm either. This past summer my first sprint triathlon was conducted with water temps well above 80 degrees. Wetsuits were banned because they did not want poached human beings lying around the beach in gloriously gelatinous fashion.
So the sport of swimming has its extremes. That is why the confined atmosphere of a indoor swim meet is like a set of diamonds forged from coal. The blue pool. The clean lines of the lane buoys. Even the single white markers to indicate how far a swimmer can legally dolphin underwater…all are calculated to make a swim meet a concise and regulated experience.
Yet things can still go wrong. And as my companion dove into the water for her first event, the 500 meter freestyle, her goggles tumbled down her face and hung around her neck. She swam the next 15 yards with her eyes closed to keep her contacts from washing out, then bobbed up to put the goggles back on her face. It’s not like you can put your feet down and stand up in a pool 12 foot deep. So you improvise.
That put her a pool length behind the rest of the swimmers. Yet she was determined not to be lapped entirely. She kept pace and emerged with a resolute smile and a resigned chuckle about how things really can go wrong at times.
Master’s Swim at Marmion, 5:30 am
The beauty of Masters swimming is the opportunity to push yourself without worrying about consequences. For all the warmth of an indoor meet, the vibe itself is chill. More than any other sport, swimming welcomes people of all shapes and sizes. The pool embraces all sizes.
Sure, there are plenty of fast swimmers who show up. One such was a young woman from Carthage College named Ashley. Her performance in the 100 IM featured a thrilling matchup with another evenly matched swimmer. The race came down to the final touch and Ashley came out of the pool with wide eyes. “I panicked,” she admitted. “I only did a one hand touch.”
In college swimming, that’s a travesty. But in a local master’s meet, it’s not such a big deal. Everything is run by volunteers. The St. Charles women’s swim team was hosts for the event. The girls stood up and rang cowbells to indicate final laps, and they did all the announcements. In true athletic fashion, most of the young women spared themselves extensive makeup on a Sunday morning, and brushed their hair just enough to wrap around a hoodie. This is called service to the sport. But the meet is also a fundraiser for the team.
The beauty of Master’s Swim is the obvious practice that has gone into many of the swimmer’s efforts. Some specialize in a specific stroke, be it butterfly, where the whole body torques through the water like an eel, or breast stroke, which is basically butterfly with the arms underwater.
One gets used to the imperfection of these strokes as multiple swimmers give it a go in their respective heats. But when the fastest swimmers hit the water it almost looks like fake news footage, or CGI.
People wait around on the sidelines in casual states of undress, towels wrapped around their waists to cover butt cheeks and other chakra. But in large part, no one really cares what shows. There are no real fashion rules since the garments are all functional. One woman explained the important difference between her practice suit and her competition gear. “My practice suit tends to ride to the side,” she chuckles. “And that’s not good.”
True, because swimming is all about eliminating distractions. It takes full attention to manage stroke rate and concentrate on body rotation…not to mention how much air you need to take in and how much C02 you need to blow out. It’s all bubbles and grimaces up and back, length to length.
And truly, swim competitions (like most races in any sport) are a shock to the system of anyone that has not been racing. Whether it’s an FTP test on the bike or a time trial on the track, jacking your heart rate up to race status for the first time is always a bit unnerving.
So there are nerves, for some. One 30s swimmer admitted that he’d long been a diver in college. But one of his teammates kept giving him crap about being “just a diver.” So he challenged the guy to a 100-meter race. “It was weird,” he admitted. “Because my teammates all wondered why this was giving me so much shit. They said, ‘He sucks!’ What’s up with that?”
“So we raced and I beat him by half a pool length,” he recalled. “And he got out of the pool, walked away and never came back. So my coach told me,” Well, you’re the one that caused him to leave the team. So you get to swim the 100-meter free from now on. And that’s who I got back into swimming.” But he was still nervous going into the day’s competition. “It’s been a long time since I swam hard,” he said, jogging his legs in place while sitting on the aluminum bench beside the pool. “I don’t even know if I remember how to dive at the start. There’s no diving at all the pools where I swim.”
That seems to be the story for so many swimmers. You come equipped the best you can, and learn from every new experience.
That doesn’t stop Chris Colburn, the enthusiastic coach of the Bullet’s Masters Swim Team from cheering his protege’s on with urgent calls and gesticulations. He works the pool deck waving and counting time so that his swimmers will not grow complacent. Colburn simply loves success of any type, and his swimmers accept that they need some pushing at times.
His companion Nikki Marasco took up swimming in the past year and rolled her way to a second place in her heat of the breaststroke. The mother of seven children, Marasco finds the early morning hours at Master’s Swim practices to be great prep for a day of being a parent to the curious, active minds all around her. Her children played and amused themselves making cheer signs for mom as the meet morning wore on. Good kids. Great mom.
Across the pool, another pair of kids holds up a set of signs made with Sharpies and glitter. They hold them aloft and wave them as mom or dad swims. “Master’s meets are like an inverse world,” my companion Sue observes. “I’ve been to meets where the pools are full of adults and the stands are full of kids. It’s like the world turned inside out.”
As the meet proceeds, swimmers check off their events one-by-one. Some beat their seed times and others shrug and say, “It’s been a while.”
A young man shows up in the stands chuckling to his buddies that the competition suit he’s wearing is more than a little tight. “It hurts, man,” he admits, reaching down to adjust the bits of chakra flesh where his crotch resides. “This could be interesting.”
Bullets swimmer Lida Bond Keuhn emerges from the competition with several age group blue ribbons. This past summer she completed her first Ironman. She got a tiny Ironman tattoo on her ankle in testimony to her achievement. Now her daughter Stephanie plans to follow in her mother’s shoes. Even father John Keuhn was a top-flight athlete in college, playing basketball at North Park in a program that won a national championship. Their son Scott just finished a career as a top receiver for the highly successful Illinois State football team. One of his former teammates now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs.
So one can see genetics at work as Lida Keuhn powers her way through the water. A long distance swimmer by trade, she doesn’t mind the challenge of compressing those skills into shorter events. But it does bring a chuckle. She turns to my companion Sue, how also completed her first full Ironman last summer, and says, “How exactly did Ironman prepare us for this?”
And of course, the answer is; “Not much.” But that’s the nature of everyone inside the natatorium it seems. Stand on the blocks and give it a go. A little more chlorine for the ages. That’s the indoor swim vibe. And you gotta love it.