What they tell you, when you become parents these days: Don’t let your kids be swimmers or hockey players. The latter prospect involves 4 a.m. ice times, because there are only so many (or so few) rinks in the world. Swimming, by contrast, means 4.5-hour meets in humid pools, during which period your kid is swimming for precisely 2.6 minutes in three or four different events. Max. Absolute max. If your child plays soccer or baseball or tennis, you get to watch him or her run around for much of the contest. If your child is a swimmer, you had better pay attention or you’ll miss “Take Your Mark; Beep.” Don’t be reading the morning paper (or napping) when the beep sounds.
I knew this, going in. My sister was what was called an elite swimmer before she burned out during her freshman year in college. I knew that our dad, whose own swimming involved nothing more than the Dead Man’s Float in the saltwater off Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, drove Gail to swim-meets every weekend and enjoyed not a bit of it. He was, in this and in all things, a good sport, and a good dad. Today, perhaps because she feels she owes Dad an effort, Gail swims for fitness and is enjoying the water again. She is an inspiration to her own two kids, and also to our Jack and Caroline, who compete with the formidable Marlins at our local Boys and Girls Club.
The Marlins just returned from the Boys and Girls Club national championships with their umpteenth straight title; they dominate every year. It’s really not fair. We are a club in Westchester County, New York, that happens to swim out of a Boys and Girls Club in Mount Kisco. We pay rent, but we are hardly of the club. The kids who play pool and ping pong and basketball—and who attend after-hours classes—don’t exchange so much as hellos with our kids. The swim teams we dust annually in St. Petersburg are actual Boys and Girls Club teams, many from the inner city, all of them smaller than ours. We have become the New York Yankees of this meet. During the awards ceremony this year, a mom from the Taunton Boys and Girls Cub was upset during the awards ceremony and asked me to sit down because I was standing at the rail when Taunton was getting its fifth-place prize. “You guys are unbelievable!” she said, even though I was the only Marlin parent in the crowd —the rest were part of a Clifton, New Jersey, contingent. I indicated I was happy to move, and wanted to add that, as a Massachusetts native, I had been rooting for Taunton all weekend. But I kept my mouth shut. I usually do.
I stress with Caroline and Jack during this and other meets notions of democracy, which are the aspects I like best about swimming. The children fully appreciate how and why these other Boys and Girls Club swimmers are different than, and perhaps less enfranchised than, they are. They also understand that the stopwatch is vigorously democratic: You go fast, and there it is. No coach will pick you for his or her travel squad if you can’t swim fast. No pitch will be deemed a strike based upon your reputation, and no foul will go un-called.
Last summer, Caroline broke a minute in the 100 free. She hung on the hip of Kristina Barry for four lengths of the pool, and finished a close second to a girl who had absolutely buried her back when they were 8-and-unders. But all this winter, Caroline hadn’t been able to get under 1:00.00 again. Close, but no cigar. She had a great and fun freshman season on her high school team—they went 8-0, and they probably won’t lose a dual meet in Caroline’s four years—but she felt at times that she was deceiving her coach if she said she was a sub-1 swimmer. Being Caroline, she didn’t say it.
In the prelims in St. Pete, she missed again, by .011. Fair enough. “That gets you another chance tonight,” I told her.
She broke a minute, and back in the staging area she gave me a big smile and a hug. She had already congratulated all of the other Boys and Girls Club swimmers, from Taunton and everywhere else.
Don’t let your kids play hockey and don’t let them be swimmers.
But if you do, God bless you.