Swim Team season is officially over.
I struggle to understand this thing called “Swim Team.”
I used to do swim team when I was a kid. It was kind of fun for the two summers I did it. I mostly remember playing cards in tents with friends while eating a ton of candy.
And that’s what I thought it would be as an adult, just sending my kids off to learn how to swim while I ate candy and played cards.
As a parent, it’s a completely different ball game.
Besides getting four kids to their different swim practices and then keeping track of who swims when all day in blazing heat, there’s the volunteer commitment.
It seemed that my husband and I were always helping with something. From timing to concessions to bench police, there was a lot to do, and all of it was mandatory.
As I observed the beehive-like manner of making the entire swim team experience work, I was astounded. From the DJ, to the concession stands, to the timer sheets, to the volunteer name tags, to coordinating which volunteer had done which shift, let alone creating the lineup of all the swimmers in each event, it was like a second job to most of the people in charge.
Was all of this really worth it?
Then my 6-year-old, Liam, was needed to fill in a relay spot for a team of 8-year-old boys. He didn’t know he was in a relay with older boys. All he knew was where to start and where to stop swimming. He waited at the other end of the pool. First the backstroke swimmer, then breaststroke. As the butterfly swimmer came down the lane, he got in the pool. His job was to swim freestyle. Technically, because he’s 6, he just swims any which way he can and it counts. His teammate touched the wall and he was off.
Now Liam didn’t know how to swim before this summer. But he had made a ton of progress after practicing every day with the coaches. He is the type of athlete that does exactly what he is told, when he’s told to do it. When they told him to do ice cream scoops, he scooped that water as fast as he could. When they worked on backstroke, he did the arm stroke and feet kick perfectly, just like they explained. Only he tucked his knees in while kicking which made him sink, still stroking and kicking, all the way to the bottom.
With freestyle, he hadn’t learned how to breathe and swim at the same time, so he swims two or three strokes, grabs the lane rope to breathe and does that again and again until he gets to the other side.
He eventually figured out how to float on his back. Now, when he can’t breathe, he rolls onto his back and kicks while he catches his breath before he rolls to his stomach to do another three strokes and then onto his back. It’s a pretty good system that he’s figured out.
For some reason with all of the excitement of this particular relay, when he left the wall, he couldn’t figure out how to float on his back when he rolled over to rest. Quickly realizing this, he rolled over again and then swam to the lane rope to catch his breath.
Despite trying again and again, this little boy could never manage to keep his mouth above water while floating on his back.
Down the lane he went: stroke, twirl, rest, stroke, twirl, rest.
I was laughing and clapping for him the whole way. But then other people started to notice him. The busy crowd of parents, kids, volunteers and coaches started noticing my boy as well.
You see, at swim meets, there’s something magic that happens with all of the hustle and bustle. Spending all of those grueling hours working together in the hot sun to make these meets happen builds a special type of camaraderie among the group. There’s usually always someone cheering for the swimmers, but it’s what happens when a swimmer falls behind, more behind than usual. It happens to the ones that fall so far behind that it would be so easy to give up because all of the other racers have finished and are getting out of the pool.
What happens is the entire pool starts cheering for them.
Liam, being as young as he was in a relay with kids two years older than him, was the last swimmer in his group and definitely way behind.
Within two rounds of his stroke-twirl-rest, everyone around the pool stopped what they were doing to cheer on my boy. And with each stroke-twirl-rest, the cheering and the clapping got louder and louder. It got louder until, when he touched the wall, he had more than 50 people yelling at the top of their lungs for my boy.
It brought me to tears.
I had my turn to join in cheering another kid. It was the prelims meet, the one that determines if you qualify for championships. The race was 100-meter butterfly for the 17-18 year old boys. I was sitting in the stands waiting for my son’s race that would start after this one when I noticed the crowd starting to cheer. I looked in the pool and saw a swimmer struggling to finish his butterfly stroke the best he could while the rest of the lanes waited, having finished a while ago.
I joined in, yelling at the top of my lungs, “Go, Go, Go!”
When he touched the wall, the crowd of more than 200 people in an indoor swimming pool went wild. It was deafening and all for him.
The difference this time is that this athlete was not a 6-year-old, he was a seasoned teenager who was well aware of his predicament. It’s hard to try when you know you’re not the best. Many kids just don’t even attempt it because they’re afraid to make a fool out of themselves.
But the thing that everyone at those swim meets understood was that you have to be bad before you’re good. You have to lose before you can win. Everyone has to go through it, it’s part of the process of becoming great. But we all know that it’s really hard to be the only one left in the pool, to be so far behind that there’s no hope of catching up. It’s really easy to think it doesn’t matter if you finish the race, that no one will notice.
So the swim team crowd gets louder for these kids, it gets so loud because everyone joins in. And when those kids get out of the water, the crowd gives them a standing ovation. The first place finishers don’t get any of this. They get cheers from their coaches, their parents and their friends. But the crowd is a different beast. The crowd is your coaches, parents, friends AND everyone else’s coaches, parents and friends. The crowd knows that it’s not about if you win, it’s about getting in the pool and finishing.
That’s why I love swim team. That’s why those volunteer hours are worth it.
Because no matter how many ribbons each of the athletes win, what each of us hope for in our children is not that they win, but that they get some of what Liam and this boy got.
After getting all their ribbons, we hope that they get some grit.
Stacy Curruth is a mother of 4 in Arapahoe County.