View from the starting block

It seems 100 years ago that I was a collegiate swimmer. I wasn’t an outstanding competitor. I set no records and was mainly an “also swam.” Back then, I swam mostly because it was a good work out that forced me to show up. I was part of a team and fed off of the camaraderie. I was good enough to not be dismissed, but not good enough to be remembered. But being a small fish in a small pond suited me well.

I never really liked the pressure of swim meets and was fine with never competing again after college. Once I hit grad school, there just didn’t seem to be much time for the pool. My swim career was largely over.

Swimming as a senior athlete

Fast forward nearly 4 decades. I’m standing on a starting block, knees shaking, and wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. I signed up to compete in swimming at the Senior Games in our state. It seemed like a good idea at the time, with the gentle urging from a friend who also wanted to compete. At this moment, standing on a tiny square platform above the edge of the pool, I’m not so sure that I should be doing this.

I still swim laps when the spirit moves me, and have a bit of kick of speed when the moon and sun are properly aligned. I’m faster than most of the old guys in the next lanes during my morning fitness swims. But right now, I was about to dive off a starting block during the pre-meet warmup. They don’t allow the use of starting blocks at my rec center pool, so I wasn’t able to practice any starts. I would need to do a crash course in diving immediately before my events. I figured I could get in at least 10 practice dives during that warm up time. Should be plenty, right?

As I climbed up onto the block, I wondered when (and why) they had been raised so high off the side of the pool. I could fall off this thing and do some considerable damage. And what if (god forbid) I do a belly-flop and cause a tsunami wave in the pool? I’m not small, and there is some additional mass stretching this bathing suit. Would everyone stop and stare if I caused some serious waves? Would I need to be rescued if it were a particularly lousy dive?

I bent into a position that I sort of remembered from years ago and, on the count of three, pushed outward off the block. I hit the water and maybe went a bit too deep to compensate for fear of generating a huge splash. Coming up, I looked for evidence of waves slapping the sides of the pool. Everything seemed to be okay, and no one appeared to have been thrown to the deck. So it was a good one.

I had just made my first dive and was slightly ecstatic. I told the young lifeguard that it was my first time off a starting block in 35 years. He was genuinely unimpressed. He had no idea that he had just witnessed a significant lifetime achievement. The accolades were silent that day.

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My first event was the 50-yard freestyle. I climbed back onto the block, shaking from excitement, and chilled from freezing pool temperatures. The horn blew and we were off. Up and back. I was the first one to hit the wall in my heat. I looked up as the referee came to my lane. He looked at me, then at the clock, and then back at me. Did I do something wrong? Did he suspect cheating because I don’t really don’t look like I should be able to move through the water with any speed?

Neither. He told me that it was a really nice swim. Little did I realize that checking on the swimmers and the timing devices is just what referees do. I don’t think I’d ever hit the wall first to know this.   

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I had five more events that day. That’s the fun part about Senior Games — you can sign up for whatever events you want to try out. Most states host an annual game, with every other year being a qualifying year. The top 3 competitors in an event are invited to the National Senior Games (aka, Senior Olympics). I qualified for a few events and managed to make it to the National Games in Albuquerque in 2019. I knew that my times were nowhere near what they should have been for the National Games, but what the heck. We went.   

Being a small fish in the small-state-pond was gratifying, but the National Senior Games were a much larger pond. Literally. It was held in the largest pool that I have ever seen. There I learned that there are some seriously fast women in my age group. As a recreational swimmer, I was out of my league.

And then I began to wonder: what would happen if I actually worked at this? What if I tried to get fitter, stronger, and improve my stroke? And what if I could go off a starting block more than 10 times a year?

I was re-bitten by the swimming bug. My goal would not be just about fitness, but about becoming a competitor again. Sometimes I feel that I left things undone in my collegiate years. I know so much more now about working out, dedication, and nutrition. How much better could I do this time around?

I’ve looked into getting involved with US Masters swimming, but there is no program within an hour from me. I don’t even like spending the 20 minutes on getting to the pool across town, let alone drive over an hour on crusty roads at 5 am to go swim. But if I want to get better, then working with coaches and being with like-minded pool mates would help tremendously.

It depends on how badly I want to try to do this. And when I can get into any pool again with this current epidemic.

4 thoughts on “View from the starting block

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