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The Future of Our Sport

I got spoiled this summer. It all started with the US Olympic Trials. I mean, how often do you get to watch a swimming meet where every athlete seems to have nerves of steel when he or she steps to the blocks? Where nearly EVERY athlete has 6-pack abs and a gun-reaction time of less than one second off the blocks? Where EVERY athlete streamlines off EVERY wall? Where EVERY athlete has a picture-perfect Fly, Back, Breast, and Free (not to mention killer flip turns, pullouts, and finishes). You name it, and they had it at the Olympic Trials. And they made it look so easy

kids swimming And then came The Olympics. Sixteen days of Perfection and Supreme Athleticism. For a few magical weeks, we lived in a world FILLED with great swimmers, honed and tapered and ready to race at mind-bending speed. And they made it look so easy.

And then along came the baseball playoffs. I never watch regular-season baseball, but how can you NOT be captivated by four teams playing flawless, aggressive, and acrobatic baseball — for all the marbles. And they made it look so easy.

With all this athleticism on view on the TV, it’s easy to become spoiled. You start to think that nerves of steel and body control and speed and agility — all the things that pro athletes have, seemingly without effort — are things that EVERY athlete should have. The pros and the elites make it seem so easy, but the reality is that it’s not.

Fast forward to last week, when the USS team for which I’m assistant coach held a mock meet to get the youngest swimmers ready for their first REAL meet. We held the mock meet during regular practice time. We put in the timing pads (our parents needed practice, too). We had timers and stroke judges. We had an official starter, and used the electronic start signal. We printed out heat sheets (the 10 and unders swam a 25 free and a 25 back, and the old kids swam 50 free and 50 back). We did the whole thing (except for award ribbons).

We had more than 50 kids, ranging in age from 6 to 14, and we grouped them by age and gender around the deck, with a senior swimmer in charge of each group. I kind of floated among the groups to see how things were going, and it was really interesting.

kids swimming A few of my "rookies" were swimming. These are the kids age 5 to 9 who are on swim team for the first time, and this was their FIRST-EVER swim meet. I had to totally readjust my head from watching Olympic swimmers, to thinking WAY BACK to when I was eight years old and swimming in my first meet at the local YMCA. Forget talking to these kids about race pace and stroke rate. This was all about "Are your goggles tight — really tight?"  "Are you going to start from the blocks or from the side? It’s OK to start from the side, you know."  "Do you need help tying the string on those board shorts?"  "On the backstroke, just make sure you’re on your back when you touch at the turn and the finish."  "It’s OK to race next to your brother — this is just a PRACTICE meet."  "If you get tired on the Freestyle, just roll over and finish with Backstroke."  "What’s the ONE THING you should think about?  "Right!  STREAMLINE!"  "And don’t forget to touch the pad." 

As I went from group to group, and as the meet progressed, I kept having more and more fun. And so did the kids. One of the girls on the rookie team was SOOO nervous that I thought she would chew right through the strap on her goggles. She really DIDN’T want to swim, but I kept telling her that EVERYBODY, even Michael Phelps, gets nervous before a race. She made it through the 50 Free, and then was totally excited about swimming the 50 Back. She had conquered some major fears, and I could tell she was really proud of this and happy with herself. I was happy, too. My rookies have not yet swum a single whole stroke for me in practice, and I had no idea how or IF they would be able to swim these events. But they did GREAT.

kids swimming As the meet progressed, I kept thinking, THIS is the future of swimming. THIS is what it’s all about. THIS is so far removed from Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin that it’s not even funny, but, in a way, it is totally connected. Great swimmers all have to start SOMEwhere. Great swimmers have to overcome nerves and self doubt every time they step to the block. They’re no different from the rest of us, and we’re no different from them in this regard. One of the great things about swimming is that it provides so many opportunities for us to test ourselves and to overcome our mental and physical demons. Every race is a chance to shine, to feel pride, and to feel happy about ourselves.

What’s my point here? All I can say is that it’s great to be involved at the entry-level of our sport. If any of you has a chance to volunteer as a coach, timer, scorer, judge, or in any other capacity that would put you on deck at meets, DO IT.