In 1993, my daughter was a sophomore in high school, and, having swum competitively since she was a 6-and-under, she was in an elite championship meet at Hamden High School. I was lucky. Swimming was a pastime for this child; she was more committed to her drama program and, while she was a talented athlete, she put very little expectation or effort into the sport. But because I have two other children, far more invested in sports than she was, I understood what the parents around me were going through, and I recorded my observations. Elite sports are costly endeavors, and cost is not merely a matter of money.
The stands are hot. Clammy. Outside the temperatures are in the 50’s — we’re having a February thaw — but heat’s being pumped in here as if the winter chill were permeating the natatorium.
I’m up at the top of the bleachers, having staked out a little piece of real estate where I can write while I watch, where I can be involved and yet keep a modicum of distance. I’m here to support my kid, but luckily for me, she’s not terribly nervous about any of it; she’s here to have fun. What a thought.
The many mothers and several fathers in attendance have shed their sweatshirts; experience has taught them well, and they dress in layers. The blue jeans will soon come off as well; rarely do parents attend swim meets clad in more than shorts and tees.
“I’m a wreck,” says Sue as she places her multitudinous bags near me to my left and begins to lay out the day’s food and towel rations. She’s a trim, agile, 40-something mom, here with her youngest child, a Division One college swim team hopeful. “This meet means so much to Emily. See that young man standing with her coach? He’s the Assistant Coach from the U of A — he’s here to see her.” I nod appreciatively.
The woman who has settled in to my right sighs as she sheds a layer of clothing. “I sure am glad I knew enough to wear my summer things today.” Her daughter approaches during a break in the warm-up, and Sue and I no cease to exist for her. “How you doing, Sweetie? You looked like you were draggin’ out there?”
“No, Ma. I’m okay!”
“You sure? You want me to get you some food?”
“No. I told’ja I’m okay. I just ate before warm-up. I’m fine. Leave me alone.”
“You need to swim fast, Baby. Only one more chance after today to make nationals.”
“Yeah. Like I didn’t know that. Geeze. I gotta go.”
“Wait. I. . . .” Mom is interrupted by the sound of the announcer’s voice echoing from the pool deck; the mic sounds hollow, and the spectators strain to hear if he is saying something important.
“This is the last call for timers, Ladies and Gentlemen. If your team is not sufficiently represented, your swimmers will be disqualified. Any questions about that should be directed to the meet director. . . .” His voice is lost in the sound of coaches calling sprint warm-up instructions.
Ready. . . hup.” Sound of feet beating on the water, hands flailing splashes upward. “Ready . . . hup.” Beat. Beat. Beat. “Ready . . .hup.”
Sue shifts her weight and sighs audibly. “This has got to be the hottest pool in the State of Connecticut. Why are we having this meet here of all places?”
“Just be grateful this isn’t the Dragon Classic. That meet is so over-enrolled. They pack ’em in here like coals in a hibachi. Yuck. I hate that meet.”
“Carla, what do you suppose they’re talking about?” Sue is staring helplessly at the coaches in mid-discussion; the officials clear the pool. There is last-minute adjustment of equipment, and the meet is about to begin.”
“Dinner, Sue. What else could they be talking about? No one’s swimming yet. It’s too. . . ”
I break off. The Darien team is beginning their ritual cheering. Acoustics of the pool intensify the shouting. It reverberates from the concrete walls to the concrete floor, bounces off the steel beam rafters and resounds on the naked ear. No one’s throat is strong enough to succeed in conversing over the cacophony of cheering that ascends the bleachers. A whistle blows. Cheering stills. Absolute silence for a moment as the assembly holds its collective breath. Swimmers congregate behind the blocks. The official commands, “Backstrokers in the water.” A new chorus of cheering.
The pre-meet party atmosphere dissolves. The girls assembled in neat little groups of four behind each block stop chewing on their goggles. They pull at the bottoms of their suits, adjust their caps. Goggles are strapped on; backstrokers enter the water.
This is the 200-yard Medley Relay. Take your mark. . . .” The starter horn beeps, and the race begins. Waiting swimmers watch intently, straining, calling to temammates to move faster. The first heat is small — only two swimmers in the water. From somewhere on the deck, a coach’s whistle bleats out the rhythm for the breaststroke leg. Teammates yell. “GOPHYLLISGOGERIGOSTEFANIEGO.”
The yelling on the deck is wild. This is a close race. In the stands, the intermittent “Gobaby” “GoJody” “Harder, Susan” are replaced by a frenzy of yelling. Everyone’s baby is commanded to “Pickitup,” to “Dig, baby, dig,” and “Getherpassher.” Lanes three and four are neck and neck. On the last leg of the freestyle — “C’mon Melanie.” “GoKatie.” “FlyJessica!” – a girl from the Wilton team pulls ahead. Excitement explodes.
“Excuse me,” a fit older woman taps me on the shoulder. “Is there a bookstore nearby? My daughter isn’t swimming for at least an hour yet, and she needs a book for an English assignment.” I give her directions. As she prepares to leave, she moans, “God this place is miserable. We’ll be here till 6:30 at least.” I nod, understanding her frustration; we have been assembled since before noon. “I wish,” she goes on; “that Y meets were governed by the same 4-hour time rule they imposed on USS meets.” I agree with her, but she has already left to seek out the Walden Bookstore across the street.
I watch her climbing down the bleachers and think about the amount of time we spend here together, these other parents and I. And how many more hours we spend driving children to practice, to meets, to the gym for training. And how very hard our children work, developing their sport, participating in other activities at school, studying for high grades, attempting to juggle a social life. What is the ultimate goal? Do we know?
“Oh God, Carla.” Sue tugs on my arm. The last heat of the 200-yard freestyle is up. “Emily is swimming. Oh God. Oh God.” She rubs her hands together, clutching her stopwatch, and moves closer to the railing, bracing herself as she prepares to record Emily’s time.
The referee’s whistle shrieks. Sue sucks in her breath. “This is the final heat of the 15 and older girls 200-yard freestyle. Take your marks. . . BEEP.”
A crashing splash resounds as six bodies hit the water in nearly perfect unison.
Emily takes the immediate lead.
From the snack bar downstairs, the smell of popcorn wafts into our awareness. “GOTIPPIGO.” “GOEMILEEEEEE.” The popcorn smell seems to add to the warmth. Sweat beads have gathered on Sue’s brow and upper lip. She presses her bottom lip over her upper one and sucks away the moisture. She fans herself. Emily heads into the turn after the 125.
“She’s off her time. Ohgodohgodohgod. She’s way off. Nearly a second at the 100, and she’s not making it up. He’ll think she’s clutching.”
“He’s no fool, Sue.” I reassure her. “He knows about training schedules. Emily’s in double workouts, weights and. . . ” Emily is coming in for the finish. She’s a full length ahead of the competition, and her time is 85/one-hundreths of a second slow. Sue rocks in place, tapping her forehead on the railing in front of her, blinking furiously. We are joined by Emily’s coach and a handsome young man in a suit, carrying a swim bag proclaiming ARIZONA SWIMMING and bearing University of Arizona colors.
“Sue Smith, this is Jim Lutz,” offers the Cheshire coach.
Sue wipes the sweat from her palms and offers a weak right-handed clasp. The Arizona coach smiles deeply. “Emily’s swim was lovely. I can see the training strain in her stroke. She’ll be awesome at seniors when she’s tapered.”
I can almost feel Sue’s body relax. She smiles now. The Arizona coach takes his next cue from her grin. “You easterners think Arizona is hot? This pool is ridiculous. Whew.” He blots his forehead, pulls at his collar and stretches his neck. “Let’s go outside where we can talk in peace. . . and cool.”
The third heat of boys’ breaststroke is in the water, and the parents around us are screaming “GOJEREMY” “GOMIKEY” “GOJASON” in discordant unison. A woman I have never seen slips into the seat next to me. “I went out in my shirt sleeves to get cold and came back in to warm up,” she admits. “I’ll probably get pneumonia,” she suggests.
“No,” I disagree. “God protects the innocent . . . and swim parents.” She laughs feebly and looks around for her place in the bleachers. It wasn’t a funny joke, but it released a bit of tension.
The Cheshire coach takes the seat that Sue just vacated. “Oh boy, why do they have the heat on in here, will you tell me?” I’m not sure if the question’s rhetorical, but he’s looking at me, so I shrug. He takes that as a signal to go on.
“Emily’s got some big decisions to make.” The referee calls the girls’ 50-yard freestyle to the blocks. A mother behind me stands up and screams. The starter beeps the horn. Now she is jumping up and down. “Look at her go.” Her daughter wins the race. “Another two years of this, and the colleges will be knocking down our doors to get him. ”
The next heat is up. A mid-thirty-ish mother — she seems so very young in this context — in running shorts and a tank top sitting in front of me holds her arms tightly at her chest and breathes through clenched teeth. Her child will be up in the heat after this one, she tells her companion. “At least I know that my mother is making pot roast and mashed potatoes for our Sunday dinner tonight. So, no matter what happens here, I have something good to look forward to.” She giggles a little, self-conscious but unabashed.
The Cheshire coach leans closer to me. “Age group parents are so naïve. They think it’s so easy to sell your kid to a school. They should ask you and Sue Smith.” He walks away to pace across the aisle behind the back row of stands. His back is wet with perspiration, and he fans himself absently with a program, then stops to adjust his stopwatch as one of his younger swimmers approaches the blocks to swim the 200 I.M.
Sue returns as the announcer — finally — reads the results of the 15-and-over Girls’ 200-yard freestyle race. Emily’s name bounces tinily from the rafters. Sue is smiling, and the perspiration begins to accumulate on her upper lip again.
The top heat of 13/14 girls’ fly is up. The noise level reaches fever pitch — there’s a horse race in lanes three and four. The parents of both swimmers are diagonally behind us, to our right. As the cheering swells –shouts in perfect rhythm with the rotating arms hitting sharply the pale blue water — the racers’ moms scream first at the indifferent pool, then at each other.
At the finish, the winner touches 3/100 of a second before the opponent. The mothers embrace. Both kids have dropped time to qualify for the national meet they’ve prayed for all season long.
“My heart won’t stand too many more years of this,” says the winner’s parent.
“You say that every year, and we’ve been doing this for eight years already.”
“Yeah, but the time drops are less frequent now. I get more nervous. What if he fails? What if he messes up? Then the colleges. . . ” Her voice trails off as another top-seeded heat hits the water to the accompaniment of strained shouts, frantic yells. Sue lifts her eyebrows and grins sardonically at me. “Walk outside with me for a minute, will ya?” My daughter won’t be swimming for another fifteen or twenty minutes again, so I gratefully accept the excuse to exit the sauna for a brief respite.
The silence bursts into my eardrums as painfully as the sunlight retracts my pupils. The residue hum impedes my hearing at first, and I strain to see through the offending light.
“I can’t stand age group moms anymore. Were we like that, Carla? If they aren’t planning their trips to the Olympics, then they’re counting the big bucks the colleges are going to offer. Is that what we got into this for?”
“I wasn’t aware I ever had a choice, Sue, to tell you the truth.”
Sue laughs. “You’re right. The really good ones can’t be pushed.”
“Only because they’re doing all the pushing.”
We talk about some of the kids we know who have left swimming, their parents’ disappointment, the feeling of wasted years. They just couldn’t focus on this anymore. I know my daughter is headed there and soon.
“They all thought those years of going hoarse in the stands, sweating out the races would pay off big time if they just kept pushing. They saw cheap college, Olympic glory down the road. But so few actually stick it out. And then you get to where we are. . . .”
“So what’d Lutz say?”
“He wants her.”
“I knew he would.”
“Will they pay?”
“Some. Not all. Maybe more the second year. If she lives up to her potential. She’s the best in Connecticut, but not so highly ranked nationwide.”
“Does she know what she’s getting into? This is the big time. Lots bigger than Clemson or Perdue.”
“I hope so. I hope so. Oh, it’s all so nerve-racking. This might e the best money she’s offered, but . . . .”
“I guess it’s a decision she’ll have to make on her own.”
“Yeah. I don’t know what to tell her.”
“Don’t’ look at me. I’m no help. I was in the same boat last year. Should I encourage my kid to turn down Yale if he’s accepted and take the scholarship from TEXAS? Do we fly to Arizona to look at their program, knowing full well that he’ll never have the choice to quit if he takes it? Or do we grit our teeth and spend the rest of our lives treading water so he can . . . Well, you get the picture. Only time will tell if he made the right choice.”
“It was so easy when they were little, and all we worried about was if they’d win the high point trophy they were drooling over at Age Groups. ”
“Amen to that. Shit. I have to go back in there. It’s feeling good to shiver a little, but my little girl — who’m I kidding? She’s no such thing anymore! — is going to swim the 100-free, and I need to be there. Thank goodness she’s going to be applying to drama programs; swimming will be secondary.”
Sue laughs at me. “Right,” she says. “But then you’ve got number three!”
As I re-enter the stadium to watch my daughter swim her race, I feel a wave of familiar humidity tickle my nose. A rush of cheering greets my ears, and I faintly hear Sue’s voice behind me.
“You fool. You love this. We all do.”