Swimming Halfway Around the World


Chinese goat herd (large)

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Imagine swimming behind a man who stops mid-workout to have a "smoke break.” Or riding a bike 7 miles past goat herds to get to swim practice. Or imagine, in the middle of practice, stopping your set to let an elderly person swim in front of you or cross the middle of your lane because “perimeter swimming” is acceptable… because here, the elderly have the right-of-way no matter who is swimming…

Every now and then I get an email that captures the essence of an “unusual” swimming experience. Today, I will share a story sent to me from Wendy, mother of four swimmers, who spent time in a small town in China working for a non-profit helping trafficked women. Though Wendy and her children now live in Texas, she reflects on her time in China and her children’s swimming experiences. From wading through foot-washing pools to swimming outside in the cold winter, Wendy’s experiences shed light on how the sport can be both different yet similar halfway around the world. Ultimately, it is a story about how swimming helped bridge the culture gap for her children, how they chose to take a pace clock to China instead of their favorite candy, and how they used swimming as a springboard to connect with people around the world.

If you have a swimming story, send me a note at swimmingstories@gmail.com

Here is Wendy’s story. Enjoy.

As we pace in anticipation of the big meets coming up, I find my mind rolling back into a time and place where my children were just introduced to the sport of swimming; a myriad of images played back on the canvass of my memory.

It was after a short fun-filled season of learning to swim and joining our neighborhood summer league, when ourChinese pool (medium) family moved to a little city in southwest China. Wanting to duplicate the same experience in China, we enrolled our children in a local Chinese swim team. It may not be true with Chinese swim teams in larger more affluent cities in China but in our little village town, children swam in hopes of making the Olympics and rescuing their family from poverty. Even at a young age, the children in our town attacked the water with discipline; sprinting off at the blow of the whistle with concise strokes, executing precise flip turns and returning to the wall in military exactness while my children floundered behind, trying to keep up. My youngest, learning to swim, soon gave up after enduring much poking and prying by his coach who stood by the side of the pool with a long bamboo stick. Our older children soon followed suit.

Still determined to continue swimming, we rounded up our children’s neighborhood friends and formed a rag-tag international swim group consisting of children from Ireland, Canada, Malaysia, Australia and other parts of the world. The coach we hired spoke more in gestures than in English while instructing our children.

Kids bikes in China (medium)Swimming in our little town was quite a cultural experience. People swam indoors in the summer to avoid getting a tan and swam outdoors in the winter as the frigid water was “good for the body”. The indoor pools were solar heated. With summer average temperatures in the low 70s, the pools were kept at a similar temperature. Our children would take regular hot-shower breaks between sets to stop their little bodies from shaking in the chilly water. They could stay in the water for no longer than 30 minute stretches.

Masters Swimming took on a new meaning in this town. The aged were much revered in the Chinese culture and were treated like masters in the water – they had the right of way all the time. Our children often found themselves having to follow patiently behind an older swimmer when he inserted himself into their swim lane. The aged also liked to swim along the perimeter of the pool. Our children would put their sets on hold as these masters swam through their lane.

Like most pools, the Chinese swimming pools were lined by gutters on the edges. It was a habit for people to stop and spit huge wads of phlegm into these drains between sets. At other times, I would find my asthmatic daughter hanging on the sides gasping for air while a man took a smoke break next to her between his swim laps (under a no-smoking sign).

Our first venture into the locker room was very memorable. My daughter, with a built-in amplifier in her larynx, entered the locker room speaking loudly and clearly in American English. In a place not commonly visited by foreigners, women jumped out mid-stream from their showers in curiosity. Half-lathered women with soap in hand came running out of their stalls to stare at her. We got an eyeful that day.

My germ phobia kicked into high gear every time I had to enter the locker room -- our only access to the pool deck. Everyone rolled up their pants before entering the locker room as it was constantly marinating in 2 inches of water – whether from the shower or the sewage, I cannot tell.

Needless to say, our children’s interest in swimming waned.

On our first furlough back to the States, we signed up for a learn-to-swim and stroke clinic at the local YMCA. From there our children were initiated into USA Swimming for the first time and a coach that would mold our children’s love for the sport.

With short cropped curly hair, athletic build and an austere demeanor, our leader, Coach Brigitte, seemed formidable and unapproachable. This impression was quickly dispelled at our very first swim meet. Her one and only instruction for the swimmers at the meet was, “No matter how you swim, there will be no tears! Because if you cry, I’ll cry too!” Coach Brigitte, inspired our children to see themselves as what they could be; she encouraged them to aspire to great heights, while they were an “ALL Times” swimmer, she challenge them to see themselves as “TAGS” (Texas Age Group Swimming) swimmers. (When we left the States that summer, my son had swum his first TAGS time.) A lifetime Masters swimmer herself, Coach Brigitte instilled the love of the sport into my children.

Swimming bridged the cultural barrier for our children. Our children might not have watched the same TV programs or listened to the same music as the other kids, but they were quickly accepted into the swim team because they labored with their teammates through the same intervals and survived through the same impossible sets. The sharing of a buffet of junk food in the guise of healthy/fruit snacks at swim meets further solidified this bond of friendship.

It came as no surprise when it was time to pack our bags to return to our home in China, Coach Brigitte showed up at our doorstep with a two by two foot high, battery powered swimming pace clock. With luggage space at a premium, we approached our children with this choice: “Kids, you can either pack six months’ supply of candy and your favorite cereal for our next year and a half in China, or you can pack the pace clock.” Our children chose the pace clock.

It was the promise to Coach Brigitte that they would continue to swim on a regular basis that kept my children braving rain or shine to make it to the pool twice a week for the following years. They would ride seven miles through busy China traffic, braving other cyclists, ox-drawn carts, through goat herds and rice fields to swim practice.

Our family returned to swim with the team in the States every 18 months, each time having ‘aged-up’, our children would start at the bottom rung of the ladder as a ‘C’ swimmers and navigate their way up the Age Group Times Standards table. They treasured every swim meet. Every swim practice was a chance to refine or correct a stroke that would otherwise go uncorrected for another 18 months.

When our assignment in China ended, it was our children’s swim-mates who set up a countdown calendar to welcome them back. They were the ones who walked them through the peculiarities of high school and sat with them through the intimidating lunches in school.

God has blessed our little Rockwall town with one of the best high school natatoriums in the nation. Our children are coached by a world-class coach whom world-recorder holder and Olympian Brendan Hansen described as “the best coach next to Eddie Reese”.


(Note: They are now coached by Neil Walker.) We have been given a gift; we are privileged people. Here is what one of my children wrote: “I have been lucky enough to train under a fantastic coach in a terrific facility. I like to honor that privilege by attending every practice and giving my all at each one.”

My children will always remember their humble beginnings -- what it means to have an open lane, an uninterrupted swim; always be reminded of a coach who believed in them and laid the foundation for a sport that has shaped their lives; and life-long friendships that will outlast the sport itself.