Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Mad Science: Thoughts on Swimming and #ArmyNavy

The Army-Navy Swim Meet was last night, and I sprang for the $9.99 monthly Knight Vision pass, so I could watch it.  I’d been considering driving up for the meet, and a couple of my classmates had been talking about meeting me—we were all convinced that Army had a good chance to win this year—but we ultimately decided not to.  Mostly because the meet was on a Thursday this year, and we all have to work today.  All things considered, it’s a good thing we didn’t.  Army got blown out of the water.  It’s left me a little confused as to what’s been going on with Army and Navy Athletics, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

The Army Men's Swim Team, Class of 1995.
Swimming has changed a lot since I swam at Army.  You can do dolphin kick in the breast stroke, for example, and of course, the kids have gotten faster over the course of twenty years of swimming evolution.  My best time in the 200 Fly was 1:51-something.  With that, I won my event at Army-Navy three years in a row, won the Patriot League Championship a couple of times, and placed in the Top 8 at the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) Championships my Firstie year.  I wasn’t—quite—an elite swimmer at the national level, but I did pretty much everything you could do without making NCAA Championship qualifying cuts.  
It was a good career.  I’ve been a triathlete in coastal Connecticut now for more than seven years now, and I frequently race against former D-I college swimmers and cross country runners—many of whom went to the very same schools we competed against back at Army—and I still almost never meet anyone who did more with college athletics than I did.
Last night I would’ve been lucky to place 8th in the 200 Fly.  
In my best event.  At a dual meet.
The winner—from Navy—went something like 1:44.  Army’s top finisher set a new Academy record at 1:46—and I think he finished third.  Seven of eight swimmers went under 1:50, and the last place guy may very well have been under my best time.  Frankly, I don’t know what to make of it.
I remember swimming in the late-80s and early-90s back in Southern California.  One of my friend’s fathers had been an elite swimmer—a butterflier—back in the 70s.  He’d been a contemporary of Mark Spitz, and his personal claim to fame was having raced Spitz in the 200 Fly and actually getting ahead of the Great One at the 100-yard mark.  Spitz was an absolute freak; this was a serious claim to fame.  However, when he talked about his times from the 70s, they were objectively slow compared to what we were doing twenty years later.  My friend’s father had been a great swimmer in his day, but swimming evolved beyond him.  Swim training evolved.  Kids got faster, to the point where what had once been very impressive became commonplace, at least at the upper levels of the sport.
Against this stands my overall impression of the Army Swim Team.  Both teams, Men and the Women, seem faster than they were when I was a cadet.  As I was reading through the team’s goals earlier this season, I was impressed by the number of cadets who’d set personal goals of making it to the NCAA championships.  We didn’t have anyone who was particularly close to making it to NCAA’s when I was at Army.  An NCAA cut-time would’ve demolished the field at Army-Navy, been ridiculously out of place at the Patriot League Championships, and stood a very good shot at winning an ECAC championship outright.  NCAA cut times are fast.  They are nearly on a level with Olympic Trial cut times—or they used to be, anyway.  
Maybe all that NCAA talk was just jive meant to bamboozle the boosters, but I don’t think that’s what it was.  For one thing, the Army Women’s Swim Team owns a recent dual meet victory over Michigan State.  No chance in Hell of that happening back when I was at West Point.  Instead, it looks to me like the team is simply competing at a higher level than it was in my day.  That’s good.  But it means, in turn, that Navy is competing at a still higher level—a much higher level—and that’s the part that I don’t understand.
Has Navy somehow started recruiting truly elite national-level athletes, and if so, how the Hell is that possible?  How do they retain elite status in the face of their academy requirements?
Take football, for example.  Navy’s quarterback is Keenan Reynolds.  In doing my research for yesterday’s write-up on the Army-Navy game, I discovered that Reynolds is considered one of the top twenty-five athletes in all of college football.  Say what?  Granted, that’s only one ranking, and it may be entirely bogus, but it’s still crazy as all get-out.  If that kind of thing is also happening in swimming—and it looks like it might be—then what in the world is going on?
Look, I know that Navy has done some financial shenanigans to fund its sports teams.  I also know that college tuition costs have exploded, and that colleges are looking to cut their costs and to use whatever dollars they have remaining far more efficiently than they used to.  Perhaps athletic scholarships are harder to get today, at least in non-revenue sports.  My lowly 1:51-something was good for quite a few offers back in the 90s.  Its equivalent today might not do you much good anymore.  I can believe that.  It explains why the academies are attracting a better class of athlete, among other things.  However, I still don’t understand is why it seems like the overwhelming number of truly elite recruits choose Navy over Army, nor do I understand why Navy seems to be able to build on its recruiting successes in a way that Army cannot.  We haveEisenhower, and they have Jimmy Carter.  I could go on, but do I really need to?  There is no reality in which Navy is a better school, and in fact, Forbes has had Army listed substantially ahead in its national rankings for the past several years.  Something is going on, but I sure as shit do not understand what it is.
Swimming at Army was a challenge.  This is not news, is it?  The Academic Year kicked in at the end of August, and at that point, I’d usually been out of the pool for months.  Graduation hit at the end of May or the beginning of June, and as a cadet that meant Summer Leave, followed by some kind of military or academic training.  Captain’s Practices started right after we got back, and then the season hit in full in September.  It would take six or eight weeks to get back into shape, and by that time, Navy was right around the corner.  The Army-Navy Swim Meet has always coincided with the football game; it’s always at the end of December.  Had I swum year-round at the Academy like I did in high school, there is little doubt that I’d have performed much better at that the Navy meet, and it seems likely that I’d have done better overall.  But we didn’t swim year-round.  Swim season ended right around Spring Break, and while I would usually try to hit the pool when I could during the offseason, frankly, I had to focus very hard on my grades after the season just to make sure I passed all my classes.  Most years, I didn’t swim much from the end of March to the beginning of September.  This is amuch different approach than the one taken by nearly all other college swimming programs, but it was the best we could do.
The flipside of that, though, is that swimming never drove me crazy.  I always liked getting back in the pool and getting back together with my teammates.  By the time Firstie Year rolled around, I was ready to do something else with my life, but until then, swimming was my life.  It was the only thing I cared about.  I’m not sure how Navy Swimming is different, nor do I know all the ways in which Army Swimming has changed, but I will say that I did all the swimming that I wanted to do at the Academy and then some.  I’m personally glad that I didn’t have to do any more.  With the schedule as it was, I also got to go to Europe twice on academic enrichment programs, I also got to go to Airborne School, and I also got to do an internship (i.e. CTLT) with the 10th Mountain Division.  That stuff was important.
I could have swum anywhere.  That other stuff is why I went to West Point.
I swam a long time and had a lot of personal rivalries over the years.  Several of the kids I swam against in the 100 Fly at the Florida State High School Championships in 1991 showed up at the finals of the 200 Fly my Firstie year at Easterns in 1995.  It was crazy.  I’d known some of those guys for almost a decade because that’s how long we’d been racing each other.  My favorite rivalry, though, was with Brian “Mookie” Blaylock, a midshipman butterflier who was two years ahead of me.  He’d owned the 200 Fly until I got to West Point.  I beat him four times in two years by a cumulative total of about one second.  At the end of that last 200 Fly at Easterns, he shrugged, patted me on the shoulder, and congratulated me on a great race.  Told me that he’d enjoyed our rivalry.  I was mystified, but I liked Mookie, and I respected him.  He’d told me that he’d branched Marines, and I could tell he was excited about it.  
I didn’t really understand what he was trying to tell me, however, for about another year or so.  As a Cow, I was sitting in a class called War and It’s Theorists taught by (then) Colonel Conrad Crane when I finally realized why an American infantry squad is organized the way that it is.  We were talking about German Army tactics in 1917 (WWI), and like a light going off in my head, I suddenly realized why the Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) is such an important military innovation.  Just like that, I saw that this Army thing was enormously cool, that I wanted to be an officer, that I would choose to join the Army even if for whatever reason the government decided not to try to enforce my military commitment.  I was suddenly mad at myself for ignoring all those Military Intercession classes and Commandant’s Hour lectures.  However, I still had about fifteen months to graduation, and I resolved to use that time more productively.  I would make sure that I could be the kind of officer that I’d only just realized I wanted to be.
This is what I got from swimming.  The opportunity to be something wholly unrelated to my sport and a few mentors who showed me the way to do it.  One of those mentors was an Annapolis graduate who went into the Marines.  It took me a while to understand his lesson, but that lesson has stayed with me, has led me in ways I’d never imagined as a kid looking at schools back in 1990-91.
I bring all of this up because if Annapolis has sold its soul for better intercollegiate athletics, then they have truly missed the point.  If that’s what’s happened, then they’ve forgotten something that they used to know, and it makes me sad.
Ultimately, nobody cares that I was a swimmer in college.  Despite the fact that it has a prominent place in my library, not even my wife cares about the plaque I got from the ECAC that one time, nor has she ever noticed the Dorothy “Skippy” Buncher award, and it’s sitting on the shelf right next to the plaque.  Truth is, I can win a swimming race or place first in my age group at a local triathlon, and it’s as likely to earn a roll of the eyes as it is a pat on the back.  That’s fine.  It’s not important, really.  
Folks care that I went to West Point.  My wife cares that I served.  She cares about the lessons that my service imparts to our kids, and when her sister’s son recently started talking about leaving NYU, he came to me to talk about the Army and what else he might do with his life.
The thing is, Army Swimming isn’t really about swimming at all.  I want the swimmers to beat Navy; I do.  But more than that, I want them to have the kinds of opportunities that I had, to grow the way that I grew, to become the best men and women that the Academy can make them.  For better or worse, only a part of that growth occurs in the pool.  The rest of it happens everywhere else, all the times that you’re not in the water.  As a swimmer at Army, how you walk away from the sport is more important than what you do when you’re a part of it.  I doubt that’s true anywhere else in the country, but it is true at Army.


  1. One of my favorite posts! I love reading your life. I love the names of your competitors "Brian “Mookie” Blaylock", it reads like a novel. Oh and by the way, I bet Sally IS proud of your Army Swimming accomplishments, she just doesn't want to show it.

    1. Thanks Margie. He's a real guy; that's not a made-up name. Good dude; I'm sure he made a good Marine. My dad liked him, and that was a pretty good endorsement for a Marine to get.

  2. First off, I really liked this post today. I think he really gave us readers am inside look as to what was going on in that big head of yours way back then. I think and know you were and still are a great swimmer. All of those swimming plaques and trophies that you have on your shelf make you who you are today true. To say that I don't care is untrue. I wasn't there when you won them, but I smile in the glory of them every time I see them on your shelf. They remind me to push hard and to not quit. So in preparation for tomorrow's game: Go Army! Beat Navy!

    1. Thanks Sally. I know you're proud of me. I also know that the trophies and stuff are not the most important part of who I am. I love you.

      Go Army! Beat Navy!!!