I’ve decided, now that I have three years swim-parent experience, swimming is a sport about the following: 1. conquering your fears, 2. conquering your flesh, 3. extreme repetition, and 4. pressure. As a child, the extent of my swimming was the drowning preventative offered by the local pool. I had no idea there was a whole world of splashing and angst and sweaty bleachers where parents wring their hands and tap their feet like speed-jacked jazz musicians.
Setting: the sweaty bleachers. I mention this is Gabe’s third year swimming. “And he’s here?” says a mom. I didn’t tell her he was here last year too. Mom-pride, rein it in.
Getting to the Great Lakes YMCA Zones swim championship was an achievement Gabe coveted in his first year swimming. Like I said. We were new. Zones was the pinnacle, so when the kids were told to make goals, a Griffiths makes them lofty. (Gabe’s dad ran the Boston Marathon just 5 years after his first 5K.)
I watched the coach’s face as she read Gabe’s goal, saw her body language. It laughed to the other coach standing nearby. It said, let’s be reasonable. Gabe didn’t make it to zones his first year swimming, but he did make it his second year. Gabe’s second year he was under a new coach, pictured above. If there is even a speck of work ethic in a swimmer, Mike draws it out. For Christmas Mike has the kids swim 10,000 yards (5+ miles). I’m convinced Gabe would swim the English Channel if Coach Mike told him he could do it.
Swimming is set up so that no matter how fast you are, there’s always someone breathing down your neck. Or more aptly, swiping at your toes. The races, called heats, pit like swimmers against like, and you’re ever-reaching for a better time, a personal best. There are harder and harder cuts to make, exclusive meets for which to qualify. This past weekend we swam the zones meet at Bowling Green State University. The hotel stay meant “team building,” aka romping the halls like a gang of street thugs. Who wouldn’t get heady on a cocktail of zones-glory, camaraderie, relief (the season’s almost over), and independence (parents? what parents?). “It was the best time I’ve ever had,” said Gabe. You’ve heard the expression over the moon? He was, we all were.
Mom-delight, I won’t even bother to rein it in. 🙂
In this book David and Goliath, Malcom Gladwell writes about a dynamic I find true in swimming and in life: courage is acquired. “Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.” This dynamic explains how Blitz-era Londoners handled life so casually. It explains Stonewall Jackson’s near mythical moment when he sat upon his horse while bullets whizzed by him, earning him the name. In both cases the courageous ones had been through brutal experiences and had come out the other side, stronger.
Desirable difficulty is the phrase, and it quantifies the boon that is swimming, and perhaps all athletics, to young people.
Desirable difficulty is this: People who’ve been through hell, find the temperature wasn’t as bad as they’d imagined it would be. In other words, the fear of the future is actually worse than the future itself. Gladwell states, “We are all of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to being afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration…”
Exhilaration. Well, if that doesn’t define Gabe and the other zones swimmers…
Throughout the season swimming places fearful moments squarely in front of a kid and then the kid must watch the horizon event come closer, closer. He’ll feel the curl of fear in his stomach, perhaps puke it up when he enters the pool. The swimmer must face the fear and step onto the block of his own volition.
Over and over again.
For the 1650 race (that’s a mile, friends), I had the honor of timing. The 11-year-olds who were about to jump in that pool– they were facing fear square on. But I was also there when they touched the wall after the 66th lap, exultant. They swam through the fear and came out the other side. Gladwell seems to describe swimmers when he’s describing surviving Londoners: “…the contrast between the previous apprehension [of swimming the mile] and the present relief [of surviving it] …promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”
The father and mother of courage: whatever we face that scares us. Makes me want to jump up off my couch and run bull-style into a public speaking engagement… or onto a dance floor. Makes me want to recruit kids by the hundreds into a sport or challenging activity.
…makes me want to smile at the weekend we just finished, to thank Coach Mike and all the RYD coaches for the work ethic they promote, and the swim parents who work tirelessly to provide the celebrations of a year well-spent.