I quietly set my swim bag down on an empty chair, and surveyed the pool deck.
A pair of blue fins flopped out onto the wet concrete. Jerry, a seventy year old gentleman picked them up for me. A clique of elite swimmers stood at the edge of the pool, throwing their arms up and down while stretching gorilla- like shoulders.
I was last to take off my shirt and jeans. My once triathlete’s physique was now an embarrassment to me. Love handles spilled over the top of my swimsuit.
My back, shoulders and limbs bore the scars of a hundred of skin cancer removals.
Worse, my mental state was not what it once was. Moments like this made me anxious.
What lane would I pick? What swimmers wouldn’t hassle me for being too slow?
The last of my pre-swim rituals was coating my nose with white zinc oxide. It was just one more uncool thing that came with middle age—a sun damaged face. I hauled by sixty- year old frame to a “middle ability lane”. Roger, a faster guy in his late sixties nodded that I could join his group. It included swimmers who trained hard and swam in competitions.
Deep down I wanted to be more than a “ fitness swimmer”. In my view, a fitness swimmer showed up and went back and forth.
That’s what I’d become. I wanted to become a “competitive swimmer” one just like the athletes now diving in.
I jumped into the chilly water, pushed off the wall and followed, like the caboose of a train. We stroked our way forward in a circular pattern, up the right side lane, back the right side. The others “flipped” their turns. I did open turns –grabbing an extra breath of precious oxygen at each side of the pool. We swam drills such as pulling with just one arm. I took the easy way out and put on flippers.
Often, I reached for a pair of paddles to keep up. If another swimmer mentioned my use of cheating with the paddles and flippers, I remarked about my hip replacement surgery last year. The truth however, was that I was in one of life’s deep ruts. My Dad passed away and I was selling his house. My children were grown and had their own lives. My wife, an amazingly upbeat and caring spouse was fit and looked decades younger than her age, but I was mired in a fog of anxiety and depression.
Nearing the end of the hour and fifteen minutes of back and forth, we covered 3,000 yards. Miraculously, at some point, my mind calmed a bit, and all imagined problems melted away.
During the next days which included short sprints, I actually came to life a bit. At times, I even exploded across the surface, spraying water like an egg beater. It wasn’t pretty, but during these short bursts, I almost kept pace with some of fastest swimmers on the team.
“You’ve been sand bagging Bob,” said Grant the coach. His words stung. He was not complementing my speed. He was commenting on my laziness. If you ranked humans by the effort they expended, I thought to myself– I had slipped to the middle. My best years were behind me. Somedays I didn’t give a shit. But then again, somedays being mediocre bothered the hell out of me.
Our lane leader, Roger, went to the U.S. Masters Nationals each year. I admired him—not just for his talent, but because a year ago, he had donated one of his kidneys to save his thirty-year old son.
He was a champion backstroker in his age group, and in a moment of stupidity, I challenged him to a sprint. Someone said “go!” , we dropped into the water, coiled up, sprang off the wall kicking upside down like lobsters fleeing a net.
I thrashed across the surface. He glided through the water.
Adrenaline coursed through my brain.
I threw my self across the pool and into the far wall like a crazy person. I actually was a crazy person of sorts. I was prescribed anti-anxiety medicine to get me through each day without erupting into anger at hapless drivers, careless waitresses and demanding clients. I joked with friends that taking anxiety medicine made me anxious.
Roger, the national backstroke champion, was a full body length behind me when I crashed into the wall.
“Wow, you are a sprinter” he exclaimed as we caught our breath.
Afterward, I drove to the home nearby where my mother and father lived in for most of their lives. My mother passed ten years prior from lung cancer. My Dad passed a year ago, six months after his heart began to fail. We had been very close, even though he had an explosive temper an often yelled at me to not race—“You have a family history of heart attacks! What the hell are you doing?” I loved him all the same—he was my Dad.
The garage held his tools and all of my best memories of him. It still smelled of sawdust ,W-D 40, and salt-crusted fishing gear.
There was an old refrigerator that needed to be moved out to the street, and I muscled it onto a handcart. At the swale I tipped it overand in that moment—ouch!— felt a sickening pull in my gut.
At home my wife gave me a concerned look and pointed at my protruding navel. A week later, I woke up groggily with a six inch mesh sewn across my gut.Standing was painful. Bending, lifting, and swimming were out of the question for six weeks said the surgeon.
Sleeping on my stomach was impossible. I woke up tired, groggy and more pissed off than usual.
To change my mood, I rummaged for the old training diary I kept. It was a record of past races, but it was also a record of my life—or at least my perception of my life at the various times. I picked up a pen. The oldest pages had race results. The last few years recorded heartbreaking episodes with my Dad.
“Took Pops to the cardiologist. He’s out of rhythm again. This time the surgeon said its not policy to restart him. Pops took the information without comment. He had lost the fight and he knew it. His walks on the beach with Alice would soon be ending. He would not make it to see his grandson, Eric get married in four months.”
“Got a call from an old neighbor, Pops had fallen again. I got him off the floor. He didn’t want me to call the Ambulance, so I didn’t. He had seen the Emergency Room six times in four weeks. I gently brought up the idea of hospice home care. He said, “I’ll fire anyone you send over here.”
“Pops passed last night and I am numb, so I did the only thing I know to stay normal–I swam, and now I know its possible to cry underwater while you are swimming.”
I turned the pages back to better days.
“Finished the Loggerhead Triathlon with Eric. Beat him out of the water, he killed me on the bike and run. I am so proud of him.”
“Today, Matt was accepted at Chapman Film School. We’ll have to go into savings to pay his expenses. That’s O.K. that’s why I’m here”.
I looked back even further. My life was good. I was very fortunate to have an understanding wife and the swimming pool.
I picked up a pen and turned to the next blank page.
The U.S. Masters National Swim Meet was scheduled to be held in California, a few hours from where our younger son went to school. It was a long way from Florida, and only six months away. But, I needed a goal. I needed an big goal. In two weeks the stiches would be removed and I could get wet again. Why not? Why absolutely not! I wrote in capital letters across that blank page: QUALIFY IN MARCH TO SWIM AT NATIONALS IN APRIL!!!!!
Just the act of putting ink on paper made the stitches hurt a lot less.
I began walking around the block with purpose. I gingerly climbed on a bicycle, then wisely climbed back off of it. The body would heal if I did not sabotage the process with anxiety and impatience.
I stepped on a scale and saw it read 200. I would have to lose 20 pounds. I would have to cut back on the fast food meals, the pizza, and of course, the beer.
When swelling went down I tried a lap in the backyard pool. Yipes!. Every movement involved the abdomen.
Every step was a process. Floating horizontally. Floating and kicking at once. Floating and reaching to take a stroke.
Two weeks later, I returned to masters swim practices. I took “baby strokes” no long pulls. I stopped at each wall, slowly turned and gently pushed off. I was getting a good education in humility. I started to learn everyone’s names, instead of calling people flash or sparky. I asked the many older swimmers how they were feeling, what were their goals. I took a course in coaching to better my ability to be helpful.
Having an audacious goal gave me energy. I woke up ready to go to work and then ready to get to the swimming pool.
I told no one of my dream to swim at Nationals, but the effort I was putting in, was getting attention. Chris Beach, the toughest of our three coaches, nodded his approval to me, then barked at my team mates, “If you can talk between sets, then you are not swimming hard enough. You should be gasping for air.”
I was. And, it was at this moment I had an insight: Most of us go through life with a 75% effort. It felt good to “cruise” a workout. You still got in shape and stayed fit. But, to reach extraordinary goals you really had to make an extraordinary effort.
“Bob, you are working hard.” Coach Grant noticed. ” Move up a lane and start doing only Wahoo workouts. The Wahoo workout was 3,200 meters a practice compared to the Loggerhead workout that totaled about 2,600 meters. But it wasn’t the distance that made the Wahoo workout hard. It was the 10 second rest intervals between each hard effort that challenged the heart and lungs.
I jumped in with the Wahoos and really started to suffer. My lungs burned and the air didn’t seem to contain enough oxygen!
“Your not kicking hard enough”, Chris yelled at me. I was three months out of the stomach surgery, and had no excuses. It was time to use my torso and legs with a six beat kick. In my fitness diary I wrote an update:
Getting serious. Swimming hard as possible. But still not near Dave Quiggin. Dave Quiggin was seventy years old and held eight world records in his age group.
Not American records, world records! He wasn’t overly tall, maybe 5’ 8” . He wasn’t overly muscular—but he utterly flew through the water. In a sprint, he hit the wall ahead of everyone on the team. In a longer distance, he started fast and only got faster as he went. He could race Five hundred meters, 1,000 meters or a whole mile–and make it look effortless.
“What’s his secret?” I asked Snag Holmes, a long time friend and swimmer. “He’s everything you aren’t, Bobby.”
“Oh great ,thanks Snag.”
“You are muscle bound. He’s flexible.”
His stroke is technically perfect.
He rolls, reaches, glides and offers very little resistance to the water.
You charge forward moving your head, slapping your hands into the water,
Twisting your body all over the place.
Just by stretching you could be more like him, and by concentrating on
Streamlined! Streamlined, would become my new mantra.
I walked over to Dave and started a conversation before practice.
I never met a more humble or focused person.
“Swim next to me and I will help you.” he offered.
And, so with Dave’s blessing, I moved up for a day to the fastest lane in the pool.
He stopped often and gave me advice. “Notice how hard I am pushing off the wall, and how many underwater butterfly body kicks I am doing before I even begin to start stroking?”
While swimming beside him, we would turn at the same time, then he would shoot out two body lengths ahead.
“Another thing,” he said. “ All of us get tired. But you can’t let your stroke fall apart because you are fatigued. I think really hard about every single stroke…even more so at the middle and end of a workout or race, when I’m hurting.”
The next entry in the diary added my new goal: “ Streamlined always, even when hurting. Push off the wall hard, stay underway half a pool length. Keep arms tight against ears whole time, keep toes and feet pointed. Keep hands together and crossed. Stretch three times a day until I become flexible!”
Dave had graciously given me the secret formula, and it quickly worked wonders. Each week, I passed more and more swimmers, and gradually moved up through the ranks.
Getting out of the water one evening after practice, coach Grant stopped me. “You should think about Nationals.”
I smiled, please don’t say anything to anyone, but Nationals is my secret goal. That evening, I wrote in my journal—
Two major challenges to overcome:
Stop eating junk food.
Practice diving off the starting block.
My diet included McDonalds or pizza once a week. If I stopped to think about it.–which I obviously hadn’t in decades– bread had become my “go to food”. Spaghetti and pizza were tied for second place.
I announced my new diet to my wife at breakfast, who, then laughed out loud.
“What have I been telling you for thirty years,” she rolled her eyes.
Diving off a starting block would require more than self discipline.
Perching on the slanted starting block was dizzying.
Wow. If ever there was a measure of how age impairs humans, this was it.
Standing upright on a slippery, front sloped piece of fiberglass was scary enough.
Bending in half to grab the front of the starting block with ones hands felt like doing toe touches at the edge of a 10 meter cliff.
The worst part was that each time I dove, I slapped the water
like a belly flopping first- timer and ripped the googles from my head.
I watched the young guys dive in. I was once like that, I whined to myself. Then I watched seventy year old Dave Quiggin dive in. He was even more graceful.
Once again, I asked him for advice.
“Weave your fingers together. Keep your head down. Dive through the surface–you are faster underwater. Oh, and tighten down those goggles as much as you can tolerate.”
His advice once again paid off. I was as ready as I was going to be. It was time to fly to California for the Nationals.
On the day of my 50 yard freestyle sprint at the U.S. Masters Spring Championship, I woke up to a clear and cool morning. A thousand swimmers and their families crowded the Riverside Aquatic Complex. My wife and I walked around the two competition pools and she
pointed out a very tall a fit young man standing nearby.
“Isn’t he an Olympian? Go talk to him, I will take your picture.”
Ryan Lochte, the 12 time Olympic medalist, was kind enough to pose with this old masters swimmer. I appreciated him for that.
He had much press for his behavior in Brazil, but my thought will always be that he had the good nature to encourage someone three decades older.
I didn’t know what to say to him. I thanked him for being an inspiration.
I looked around a saw athletes aged 25 to aged 85. I realized we all had something important in common. Each of us had pushed ourselves physically and mental to be here.
It felt really good . When opportunities arose, I congratulated each on their races. Life came into sharper focus for me that day: Effort is the fuel or happiness.