Time passed, school let out, and we soon settled into a routine. I was up in the morning at dawn, onto my bike, down the hill and back up—about a half-mile to swim practice. We swam for ninety minutes or so, and then I was back on my bike. Mom made pancakes most mornings. Sometimes I ate cereal. Soon enough I was back on my bike, heading back to the pool to meet friends, as often as not still wearing our Speedos. Chicken fights, Marco Polo, tag, touch the bottom of the deep end, diving contests, and “who can splash the lifeguard?” These things were our lives. We had sleepovers, got addicted to the Eddie Murphy edition of Saturday Night Live, and taught ourselves to play red box Dungeons and Dragons. We watched movies and threw ninja stars at a cut-out target that somebody set up in their garage.
We were kids.
|Swimming for Camelot.|
Swimming came together for me. How much of this was practice and how much was the sheer constancy of our presence at the pool I neither knew nor cared. It wasn’t a concern. We were running around on land, and we were running around in the water, and we all did both with equal facility. My best friends were Chris and Cass and Eric and David. Especially David, who’d been in my school but whom I’d never really gotten to know until we started swimming together. We shared a love of the cool new technology of the 1980s, of X-Men comic books, and of fantasy roleplaying games. David particularly loved the computer game Zork, which had just debuted to public acclaim. He was also the best breaststroker in our age group, which meant that we spent a lot of time together in the water.
Good swimming form starts with the right body position. Kids who have naturally good form keep their heads down and have hips that ride high in the water. If you think of your body as a lever, then your lungs—which fill with air and therefore float—serve as a fulcrum. When one part, your head, comes up out of the water, the rest of your body must sink to counterbalance, a motion that is exacerbated by the placement of the lungs. Our lungs are off-center, so our hips and legs already have a tendency to sink because they’re on the lever’s long end. We control this by keeping our heads down with our faces in the water and by kicking, both to provide locomotion and to keep our hips high, so that they ride at the waterline.
Being a good swimmer therefore starts with being comfortable in the water. You have to be able to relax with your head and face submerged. Otherwise, it’s impossible to manage airflow in such a way that you’re burning oxygen no faster than you can take it in by turning your head to breathe. Once you’re comfortable, you can begin building a long, efficient stroke. You want to pull down the center-line of your body, recover with your elbows high and your fingertips almost dragging the water’s surface. You then place your hand into the water in front of you at about a forty-five degree angle and push through to full extension. Ride that extension and get the most out of every stroke. Do this again and again and really work on keeping it long.
Coaches use many drills to get their swimmers comfortable in the water and to then lengthen their strokes. The Camelot Swim Team made the most use of the “catch-up stroke,” a drill where one arm doesn’t start its pull until the other has already finished its recovery. Thus, catch-up stroke starts and ends with both hands at full extension out in front of the head. To facilitate the drill, our coaches purchased several hundred one-foot bamboo sticks, which we held out in front of us when we swam, ensuring the proper coordination and timing of the stroke. One hand couldn’t start its pull until the other had finished and grabbed the stick to hold it in place. We had to do the drill correctly, and this had a tendency to lengthen our strokes.
We did catch-up stroke with sticks endlessly.
We did it breathing every third stroke, forcing us to practice breathing on both sides. Then we’d up that to breathing every fifth stroke. Then every seventh stroke and then every ninth. We did this first in twenty-five yard lengths and then in fifty-yard laps, and even for a ten-year-old, this meant breathing at most two or three times per length of the pool. It was tough, lung-busting work, but it turned me into a legitimate swimmer over those first few golden weeks of summer. By the time our first meet rolled around, I was more than ready.
The Camelot Swim Team was part of the Northern Virginia Swim League (NVSL), a summers-only recreational league back in the 1980s. We swam a dual-meet schedule of events by age-group and capped the season with a championship meet for which only the top twelve swimmers in each event qualified. The league had a good number of teams, so qualifying for the championship was a big deal. Almost no one did.
NVSL meets were quick. We swam a 50 of each stroke by age group, a short individual medley (IM), and a series of age-group relays. Each event had just a single heat. Parent volunteers served as timers and meet officials, with meets themselves lasting a couple of hours at most. They were typically scheduled for Saturday mornings or occasionally for early weekday evenings.
Our coaches made a real effort to push team comradery. We did a half-dozen or so cheers before every meet, and I loved them. The cheering was by far my favorite part of the meet.
Don’t mess with us, ‘cause we’re too hot,
And when we start we just can’t stop.
So clear the lanes when we dive in.
We’re Camelot, we always win.
I loved everything about being on the Camelot Swim Team.
For my first meet, the coaches entered me in the 50 Breaststroke. I was surprised that I wasn’t also entered in the 50 Butterfly, but I was far from disappointed. I could do the breaststroke just fine. Besides, only four of us were entered in that particular event. My friends David and Chris, me, and one kid from the other team. Of those, I was the only rookie.
Camelot didn’t have starting blocks. We therefore stepped straight up to the lip of the pool. The Starter told us to take our marks and raised his cap gun. I bent down and grabbed the lip of the pool with both hands, one foot forward and one back, ready for a track-start into the water. The Starter fired, and before I knew it, I’d begun my first race.
I dove, pulled out, and kicked to the water line. I was at the turn before I knew it, and as I started back for home, I could see my friend David out in front, trailed by the kid from the other team. Chris and I were neck-and-neck. I pulled as hard as I could and pushed the pace, dropping Chris as we neared the wall. I touched a beat ahead and finished third.
My folks went freaking crazy.