This morning the Master’s Swim program at Marmion Academy convened for a session at 5:30 a.m. We had plans afterward to head out after breakfast at the Double Yolk, a yummy spot for omelets and an annual congregation of participants for a holiday meal together.
Coach Chris Colburn made up a swim workout for the regulars titled the “Twelve Swims of Christmas” or somesuch. He’s a funny guy. He also loves to see people suffer, sometimes shouting ironic encouragement as he did to me today when he chortled, “Chris, you’re on fire!” when actually I knew full well that Iw as paddling through clear blue liquid stuff they call ‘water.’ But Chris and I have an understanding about such things. They don’t need to be understood.
We all love Chris and his assistant Tim, two dedicated fellows who rise even earlier than the rest of us to open up and prep the pool. Typically the day’s workout is scrawled on a whiteboard along with a list of celebrity birthdays and other news of the day. This is an early-morning version of the Internet, only without all the data and pixels.
So it’s a charming if sometimes sleepy crew that gets up early to swim. Most choose two or three mornings as their swim days. But that doesn’t constitute a guarantee. At breakfast, we teased one participant who showed up for swim practice only to sit on the bench of the pool deck the entire workout period, jawing with his buddy. “Your feet never touched the water,” someone laughed. He shook his head and said, “I admit. That’s true.”
No one judges him.
The Swim Zone
My wife, by contrast, disappears into what’ I’d call a Swim Zone during her workouts. Only an attack from a wayward shark could interrupt her concentration. I know this is her time, and she makes the most of it. Which is why it did not surprise me to see her working her way through the last of the 200-meter intervals prescribed by Coach Chris in the Twelve Swims of Christmas workout while the deck filled with dozens of elite swimmers from the Academy Bullets, one of the state’s elite swim programs.
I was already out of the pool when they began arriving.There is no such thing as concern about “appearance” for swimmers at that hour of the day. Girls arrived with their hair piled up in messy buns and guys walked by with hair sticking up everywhere on their head. It’s quite likely they went to bed with wet hair after the workout from the night before. That is how elite athletes roll.
They come as they are because they know that looks don’t matter in the water, and no one is really trolling for dates on the pool deck. There’s no time for that. The women emerge from the locker room in those competition swimsuits that say they’re there for one thing: To go faster in the water.
Growing up as an erstwhile swimmer in a summer pool club, I recall learning early on that the world of swimsuits is a universe unto its own. Same with the world of skin. It tans and it gets goosebumps and sits differently on girls than boys. Deal with it. Beyond that, the body mysteries typically remain in place until the teenage years when the stakes get a little higher and the world revolves around mysteries without any clues…here reminisced by Bob Seger in the song Night Moves…
I was a little too tall
Could’ve used a few pounds
Tight pants points hardly reknown
She was a black haired beauty with big dark eyes
And points all her own sitting way up high
Way up firm and high
Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy
Out in the back seat of my ’60 Chevy
Workin’ on mysteries without any clues
Workin’ on our night moves
Trying’ to make some front page drive-in news
Workin’ on our night moves in the summertime
In the sweet summertime
Kids on patrol
I looked at those kids on the pool deck and envied their youth in some sense, but not entirely. Getting good at athletics is the ultimate mystery without any clues. You have one real chance to do it in life. Training starts in the teens and typically lasts through the late 20s before reality and family and commitments beyond workouts enter the athlete’s life. The hard fact is this: One can never fully predict where the end of talent will come, or how much hard work can truly push the body and mind beyond that. At some point, we reach our limits and are left to wonder the rest of our lives, “Was that really it?”
It never ends. Even today, athletes keep coming through the ranks like fodder for some giant, churning machine known as sports. When those girls and guys dove into the pool this morning after my wife climbed out, the sound of them starting up to swim drove the noise in the natatorium up to the decibel level of some sort of industrial plant. Every lane had something like four to eight swimmers in it, each almost touching the feet of the swimmer right in front of them. They tore through laps with earnest speed as if some carefully applied electrical current was driving their muscles and bodies through the water.
These swimmers were mostly top-ranked collegiate athletes and Olympic Trials qualifiers. There were swimmers from Division 1 universities such as Tennessee, Yale, the Naval Academy. There were sub-elites as well; Kenyon, Valpo and Dartmouth, to name a few. Each swimmer used a freestyle stroke honed from millions of meters of repetition. That much I truly did envy.
I sat on the pool deck admiring their grace and power in the water. I thought about how hard each of those athletes has worked to get as good as they are now. I watched them swing to the left center of the lane as they approached the wall each lap, flipping with ease to come back up below the level of the next swimmer arriving for the turn. It all worked like some slick scene from a Disney cartoon.
I’ve always loved watching great athletes in action. It surpasses the best the world alone has to offer, creating a sphere of its own where efficiency reigns like the wave of God’s own hand. That sensation of joy watching other athletes will never change for me. Thus it was such a pleasure to watch a better wave of swimmers at work. They made it look so easy it appeared to be play. And that is the magic of it all.