Exercise improves health and mood, two reasons I try to do it nearly every day. But frequency does not guarantee quality and I get complacent, especially when it comes to my lifelong sports, such as swimming. To combat that, I enter competitions from time to time. I find that, while physical and mental health are fine motivational forces, they can’t hold a candle to the prospect of public humiliation.
Knowing that my sprint swimming needed a kick-start, when one of my Masters teammates mentioned a few weeks ago that he’d signed up for a meet at George Mason University, I decided to join him.
I started out my swimming “career” in the 1970’s as a sprinter at Fox Hunt Swim Club, the community pool down the street from my childhood home. My favorite strokes were backstroke and butterfly, and I swam them seriously from age 8-12, then less seriously from age 12-18, and then not at all from age 18-32. When I ended my 14-year swimming hiatus in 2003, I went right back to what I knew and began swimming short-distance butterfly and backstroke. I started to compete again and found an upside of having reached my swimming zenith at age 12: with consistent training, I was swimming faster in my 30’s than I did at 18.
In May of 2010, I decided to swim in the U.S. Masters National Meet in Atlanta. My parents, who’ve lost at least 16 years of their lives to swim meets, couldn’t wait to lose a few more days and add the burden of travel to the equation, so they came to cheer me on. My then-fiance flew down, too, and my brother, an Atlanta local, rounded out the support squad. For a swimmer like me, the stakes were as high as they were going to get, yet I didn’t manage to notch any personal bests, nor did I fulfill my lifelong goal of breaking 30 seconds in 50 yards fly.
I haven’t swum in a meet since then. Instead, over the past few years I’ve become a respectable open-water, long-distance swimmer, and it’s a totally different experience. It jacks up my adrenaline the same way sprinting does, but instead of coming from the thrill of doing an all-out sprint, that jolt comes from the realization that I am, for example, about to swim in a shark habitat. With the open water season coming to a close, I decided it was time to get back into sprinting and that this meet, which took place on Sunday, would tell me in the clearest terms whether I still had it.
I had signed up for the usual suspects–50 fly and 100 back –knowing that I couldn’t cram months’ worth of speed training into two weeks. I did what I could and made some progress, but I wasn’t sniffing my old times in practice. I tried to talk myself out of caring about it, but then my parents, who apparently have an incurable addiction to boredom, upped the ante with four simple words: “We will be there.”
On entering the locker room at George Mason Sunday morning, I overheard one woman say to another, “Someone flew in from West Palm Beach for this meet. Can you believe that? I just don’t care that much.” Ah, the sweet sound of sandbagging, every bit as much a swim meet staple as the smell of chlorine.
When I met my teammates Ted and Bret on deck, the three of us fell right into a sandbagging relay.
“I haven’t really trained.”
“I had too much wine last night.”
“I just got some travel immunizations and they shot me right in the bicep.” (Bret contributed that last one, and Ted and I couldn’t help but be impressed.) Moments later I ran into an old friend from my Fox Hunt Swim Club days. He hadn’t swum a Masters meet before, giving him a built-in excuse if he needed it.
Sandbagging aside, we all admitted that we cared about our times and still felt nervous even though we know a Masters meet is a no-stakes proposition. I suspect nerves at this stage of the game stem from the desire to see what you can do, coupled with the disturbing awareness that you have absolutely no idea. The people who claim you get more comfortable in your metaphorical skin as you age never mention that your actual body becomes increasingly capable of behaving like a complete stranger.
I got up on the blocks for the 50 fly, my parents and teammates cheering behind me. Adrenaline gave me a boost on the start, and as I kicked to the surface and started my stroke, I felt pretty good. My arms and legs seemed to remember how to sprint. The second lap took everything I had, but that didn’t strike me as odd. I touched the wall feeling triumphant and thinking I just might have broken the 30-second mark. When I looked at the scoreboard, I saw that I was right: I had crashed through not only the 30 second barrier, but also the 31. Ouch. In five years, I’d slowed by more than a second, a lifetime in swimming. I certainly hadn’t expected my body to do that. (If you want to watch me executing my time-honored sports motto–“if you can’t be good, look good”–check out Lane 4 in this video.)
To make matters worse, my legs were dead and I had less than 20 minutes to recover before my next event. That would’ve been a stretch even in my prime. Once again, my parents and teammates rallied behind me. Buoyed by their encouragement, I had a good start, but that got me only so far, by which I mean 25 yards. After that, I was out of gas. By the final 25, I was in a full-on flail, my arms wheeling like hands on a spastic clock. I touched the wall and looked at my time: two seconds slower than in 2010. Oof.
I hoisted myself out of the water and went to see my parents. They were all thumbs-up even though they must have known my actual times were far slower than my seed times.
“Were you racing in yards or meters?” Dad asked.
Oh, the poor dear. He had assumed my bum times owed to a longer distance. Nope. The real explanation was much more straightforward. If bodies were cars, in 2010, I’d been driving the equivalent of a Corvette. At some point over the past five years, a thief evidently made off with the Corvette and left me with a Honda Accord. Despite suffering a major setback in speed and style, I admit I enjoyed putting the pedal to the metal again. And though my Corvette days might be behind me, with a little work I bet I can at least trade up to an Audi.