January 30, 2011
9:45AM. The Hampshire Regional YMCA pool in Northampton, Massachusetts. I am preparing to compete in a National Championship against 3,000 other swimmers. I jump into the pool and plunge under, then stand and press the edges of my goggles hard into my eye sockets. The water feels cool, good for a long swim. In the lane to my right, a petite woman glides easily into a flip turn and pushes back toward the deep end. To my left, an elderly gentleman is backstroking toward me, his arms a stately watermill. Just the three of us in the pool, but I am the only competitor. Further to my left, a life guard is moving lane markers, preparing for a water aerobics class. The acrid-sweet odor of chlorine fills the tiled hall. Behind me on the pool deck, my wife sits with a clipboard, a pencil, and a watch. I return to the wall and, as my wife nods, I push off, pulling through the water and revving up my kick. The black tile land markers on the bottom of the pool slide under me.
United States Masters Swimming (USMS)promotes and sponsors swimming for adults in this country, including a variety of competitions. For me, the word "Masters" carries connotations of maturity, of gritty, hard-won experience. For the USMS, it means anyone over the age of 18. If you can vote, you can compete in masters swimming. Currently, the USMS holds a dozen national championships: most of these are based on distance -- how fast can you swim a certain distance? Others are based on time -- how far can you swim in the specific period of time? I am competing in one of these, the One Hour Postal Swim. The challenge is to see how far you can swim in one hour. During the month of January, swimmers compete in pools throughout the country. They mail a record of the distances they have swum in an hour to the Race Chairman, hence "postal" championship. This means that competitors can swim in any pool, as long as they have someone to keep track of the time and the number of yards they have covered.
This is the tenth time I have competed in the One Hour Postal Swim. On several previous occasions I have joined a large group of swimmers in a pool, with one swimmer per lane and a record keeper on deck for each swimmer. No need for stopwatches because this is a race in which everyone finishes at exactly at the same time. More often, however, I have competed alone in a pool. My solitary race against 3,000 other swimmers.
Theoretically, I should pace myself so that in 60 minutes I will be completely exhausted, barely able to take another stroke. But I'm taking a more relaxed approach, choosing not to have my wife shout the elapsed time as I make the turn at her feet. My plan is to swim hard, but I'm content to count the number of pool lengths I swim and use the messages from my heart and lungs as a gauge. After 20 lengths -- 500 yards in this 25-yard pool -- I am feeling strong and confident.
Humans have been swimming since prehistoric times. The "Cave of Swimmers" in southwest Egypt depicts stone age men dog paddling some 10,000 years ago. The first book on swimming, "A Dialogue on the Art of Swimming" was written in 1538 by a professor of German Languages, Nicholas Wynman. Although it included some excellent descriptions of several strokes, its purpose was not to improve the technique of medieval swimmers, but simply to help keep them from drowning.
Competitive swimming didn't take hold until the 19th century and most people credit England with the development of swimming as a competitive sport. Somewhere around 1837 English swimmers began using six artificial pools in and around London. By the time the British Amateur Swimming Association was formed in 1880 more than 300 swimming clubs had joined the association.
At the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, the swimming competition (for men only) consisted of four open water freestyle events: the 100 meter, 500 meter, 1200 meter, and a 100 meter race for sailors. To start, the competitors jumped out of a row boat in the Bay of Zea, 12 miles southwest of Athens. Alfred Hajos of Hungry won the 100 meter event in a time of 1 minute and 22 seconds. Three Greek sailors competed in the sailors-only race and Ioannis Malokinis triumphed with a time of 2 minutes and 20 second. Times have improved considerably since then. The current Olympic record of 47.05 seconds for the 100 meter freestyle was set by Australia's Eamon Sullivan at the 2009 Beijing Olympics.
After 40 lengths I can feel a twinge in my right shoulder. Nothing serious, but I back off a tad and put more effort into my kick. My dream in this event is a completely unrealistic 3,001 yards. In nine attempts, my best finish has been 2,830 yards when I was 61, eight long years ago. My 3,001 goal is based solely on the fact that my younger sister -- younger by two years -- swam 3,000 yards in an hour at the age of 53. I would love to beat her distance, but this dream, driven by sibling rivalry, is fading fast.
The USMS divides competitors into 5-year age groups and the top swimmers in each group are typically former high school, college, and Olympic swimmers. Having never been on a swim team, I have no illusions about winning my age-group either. For example, when I was 61, my 2,830 yards was 62 percent of the winning distance of 4,560 yards for the 60-64 age group. When I became 65 and moved into the 65-69 age-group, my distance was 2,775 yards and the winning distance was 4,970 yards. Because of differences in genes, experience, and, especially, dedication to training, distances are not perfectly linear with age. Why do I compete? Because it's fun and I like challenging myself. If I can swim more than 2,000 yards, I'll be satisfied. Not delighted, but satisfied.
Sixty lengths, 1,500 yards. The shoulder twinge is gone, replaced by a general torpor. I assume this is mostly mental and scold myself. I've never learned how to do a flip turn, so each time I reach the wall, I grab it, turn, and push off. Any serious swimmer would scoff at this clumsy turn, but I don't regard myself as "serious" swimmer and have long since given up being embarrassed. When I make my turn at the shallow end, my wife dutifully notes the time and distance on her score sheet. Turning to breathe, I can see the water aerobics class is now in session. A dozen participants are rhythmically waving their arms and jumping up and down, like so many human kelp.
I am swimming "freestyle." This literally means that I can choose any type of stroke I wish -- backstroke, breaststroke, sidestroke, butterfly, dog paddle, or crawl. I have chosen to swim the crawl or forward crawl, generally acknowledged to be the fastest of all the strokes. It has been practiced since ancient times. It seems that the first time it was used in a race was in London in 1844 when a group of American Indians, led by two stalwarts, Flying Gull and Tobacco, easily defeated a group of English breaststrokers.
The crawl with all its splashing and violent movement was regarded as unseemly by the English, who continued to swim only breaststroke in competition until later in the 19th century. Somewhere around 1870 John Arthur Trudgen, an English swimmer visiting Argentina, learned a version of the crawl from indigenous South Americans. However, instead of a flutter kick,Trudgen favored the scissors kick used in the sidestroke, perhaps because it was more "seemly." This combination stroke became known as the Trudgen (or Trudgeon) Crawl. In the following decades three men modified and improved the stroke. Australian swimmer Dick Cavil added a two-beat flutter kick and this stroke became known as the Australian Crawl. Solomon Islander Alick Wickham and American Charles Daniels made further subtle improvements, including a six-beat flutter kick, and developed the stroke that is used today. It's the stroke I am using.
As I finish my 71st length (1,775 yards) I make a mental note that I have passed a figurative milepost. I don't know exactly how much time is left, but it can't be more than a few minutes and I push my body to pick up the pace. My body's response is sluggish.
The repetition involved in long distance swimming competition, to say nothing of training for it, can be deadly dull. I usually find myself thinking along two or three separate lines. First, I keep track of my progress. How many lengths have I done? How many yards is this? What percentage of by 3,000 yard goal have I swum? How many strokes per length? Most of these calculations come quickly because I've done them so often in training. Long distance swimming has significantly improved a narrow facet of my arithmetic skills.
Second, there is the general day-dreaming mode. What is the arrangement of black tiles on the bottom of the pool based? Some ancient Greek or Phoenician design. How fast would Michael Phelps pass me? Would this inspire or discourage me? What's for lunch?
Third, I try some self-coaching. Until I read up on swimming mechanics I was blissfully unaware of how complicated the forward stroke can be. I just stroked my way from one end of the pool to the other. But now, having learned some of the nuances of the forward crawl I can ponder a catechism of subtle swimming fundamentals. Is my body streamlined? Am I using an S-shaped pull? Is my hand entering the water "quietly?" Is my elbow up during recovery? Is my six-beat flutter kick consistent? Are there actually six beats? Is my breathing-stroke ratio consistent? It's almost as mind-boggling as learning to hit a three wood.
It is during one of these reveries about freestyle perfection that my wife jumps up and waves at me as I make my turn. The hour is up. My national championship is over. I stand, pull off my goggles, and look up expectantly. In the last 60 minutes I have swum 2,180 yards. Not a personal best and w-a-y short of my dream of 3,001 yards. No Ionnais Malokinis or Flying Gull here. How to get faster. Well, although I am tired, I still have some energy left. I could have pushed myself harder. And surely more training would help. Perhaps some instruction from a real coach would increase my yardage. I won't know how I compare with my cohorts for a month or more. The results must be received, collected, tabulated, and published. I feel satisfied, even exhilarated, despite of falling short of my dream goal. I'm looking forward to seeing how the other swimmers in my age group did. And next year I'll be the youngster in my age group instead of the senior citizen. Now, what's for lunch?
P.S. The results of the 2011 USMS One Hour Swim are in. With 2,180 yards, I finished 67th out of 70 swimmers in the 65-69 age group. The winning time for my age group was an impressive 4,630 yards by Don Davis. Obviously, I still have quite a bit of work to do.