By Bryan McCann.
Other than feeling like a lycra-clad fool, it was ok, I guess. I finished all three events without a DQ. I came near or under my very loosely estimated seed times. I suffered no myocardial infarction, or infarction of any kind. My master’s swim meet experience was a success.
I had two objectives when I registered: the standard master’s athlete goal of motivating myself to get in shape, and the goal of empathy. I wanted to understand a little more keenly what my older son is going through in those grueling PVS races, and in the long wait on deck in between. Let’s face it, swimming is the sport of invidious comparison par excellence. When you watch your kid swim a 400 IM for the first time, your first reaction is, wow, that’s incredible, I can’t believe he can do that, what an amazing accomplishment, I’m so proud. Your second reaction is, hey, look at that kid in lane four….
When you watch fourteen heats of the 200 back from the steeply-raked seats of the Eppley Recreation Center Natatorium at the University of Maryland, every virtue is crystalline and every flaw is even clearer. It all looks easy from the upper deck. I wanted to force myself into a reverse-angle view, from the watery depths below.
I chose the University of Maryland Aquatic Club Master’s Last Chance Meet because the name seemed fitting, because it allowed me to put off thinking about it until early May, and most importantly because it was at Eppley, the region’s premier aquatic center. I have watched enough heats there, from the stands or on deck as a timer, to know that this is the kind of pool competitive swimmers dream of—deep and capacious, with plenty of room on its broad bulkheads, and ample, airy reaches in its vaulted ceiling that keep the air circulating and absorb the echoes, mitigating the claustrophobic, ear-splitting ambience of the typical indoor swim meet. It is a swimming cathedral. Gotta be the Epp.
I registered for 200 Free, 100 IM and 200 IM in order to avoid the sprintiest sprints and to give myself a chance to flail in four different strokes (five, counting underwater dolphin). But a week before the meet I remembered I had a conference call scheduled for that morning. I had to scratch the 200Free and switch to the 50 Back. This is one of the differences between age-group and master’s swimming. Age-group meet prep might get derailed by any number of outside factors, but a teleconference board meeting is probably not one of them. Even worse, I was the one who had scheduled the conference call to begin with. Self-sabotage will get you every time.
There are some other obvious differences: at a master’s meet, the stands are empty. Kids don’t come to watch their parents swim, thank god. The Epp was as hushed as the Duomo on a Monday morning. In a master’s meet there are no flyover starts. There is, instead, a generous pause between heats as seniors swim under the lanes to exit at the ladder. And the whole thing is much more laid back. Some swimmers are shooting for world records in their age group, but nobody is trying to make JOs, which is obviously a much bigger deal.
But there are some things I suspected about age-group meets that turn out to be true at the master’s level. The dudes in the fancy tech suits really are intimidating, not so much because of the suit but because they bestride the deck with the confidence that comes from having conquered thousands of hard sets and hundreds of close races. And touching the wall ahead of one of the dudes in the fancy tech suits really is that much more satisfying. Even when the dude in the tech suit is a sixty-five year old grandma. That shouldn’t be true, but it is. Take that, grandma.
Something else I knew logically to be true but needed to feel in my bones: the best laid-plans o’ mice an’ backstrokers go oft awry. I knew I would flop on the backstroke start because I haven’t done a backstroke start off a block since, like, forever. Sure enough, I did. But I was surprised to flop on the backstroke flip-turn, a maneuver I execute unthinkingly fifty times a week. It is all radically different when you are going as fast as you can, heart pounding, swimmers on either side of you pulling away, shouts and whistles reverberating dully through your partially submerged latex cap. As I approached the wall I blanked and forgot how to turn. More precisely, I thought about it instead of just turning, and that made me forget how to do it. Instead, I did a passable one-hand touch backstroke flip-turn, apparently calling on an atavistic memory from July 1982, the last time I competed in the 50 Back. I finished last in the heat.
I finished last in the heat in the 200 IM, also, and in fact, last in the race by fifteen seconds or so. This is the problem with master’s swim meets: the other hacks tend to stop at the 100 Free, leaving the killer events mostly to the nationals-level swimmers. No matter—without my glasses I can’t see more than ten feet, anyway, so I may as well be in a heat of my own at all times. It was still my best event. My backstroke turn was flawless (or at least it seemed that way from my angle).
I finished in time to make the twenty minute drive to Fairland Aquatic Center, where my son was struggling through a rough afternoon at the Early Bird Long Course Meet. I knew he was having trouble when I pulled into the parking lot and I got his text reading “It feels like January Open, 2016,” a day that will live in swimming infamy. I met him in the lobby and we talked it over. It felt good to be able to tell him I knew exactly how he felt, not because I had experienced it forty years ago, but because I had experienced it half an hour ago. He asked me my time in the 200IM. I could tell from his noble attempt to suppress a smirk that he got some satisfaction when he heard it started with a three. Totally worth it.