The Buzz: Appreciating Swimming at any Level


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

ANN ARBOR – Walking into my first high school swim meet in 11 years was like walking into a time machine. The smells were the same – chlorine, check, humidity, check. The sights were the same – big pool, check, timers, bingo, officials, yup. There are the swimmers, check, and coaches, present. But for the first time since 2001, I was at a high school swim meet, and something was drastically different: I was on the “other” side. The stands side. The parents’ side.

The spectators’ side.

My companion was someone who had never been to a swim meet before – at least, not with an avid swim fan like myself. We were there to watch a cousin of mine compete. My companion had asked me before we arrived, “Maybe we should arrive fifteen or twenty minutes early?”

Me: “Why?”

Companion: “Because... maybe there’s tailgating?”

Me: (Laughs.) “Sorry. This is a high school dual swim meet. There’s no tailgating.” (Pause.) “Or is there?”

Suddenly, I didn’t know. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Was there tailgating now at high school swim meets? Did swim parents arrive 20 minutes early for dual meets when I swam? Have iPhones and Twitter changed the entire high school swim meet viewing experience? I had no idea. I had to find out. So we arrived 20 minutes early.

Nope. There was no tailgating. We were the first ones there. But that doesn’t mean the meet wasn’t as exciting as any other meet I’ve seen this year…

2012 has been a strange year in terms of my personal swim meet attendance. I’ve been to Grand Prix swim meets. I’ve sat poolside at the Olympic Trials. I witnessed Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Missy Franklin swim in front of thousands of spectators. And certainly, there’s a thrill with that. There’s a heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat excitement that occurs when you see these ultra-refined swimming machines churn through the water with precision and flawless technique, strokes that have taken decades to chisel down to Olympic caliber.

But I had a bigger thrill last Tuesday. I was one of 40 people in the humid stands at a high school swim meet, cheering my youngest cousin in the 50 yard freestyle. I realized swimming is just fun to watch, no matter who is swimming, if you know what to watch for…

Sometimes, “knowing what to watch for” can be confusing. I forgot how confusing swim meets can be, especially to first-time spectators. When you attend “smaller” swim meets than the Olympic Trials, not everyone in the stands are avid swim fans. You overhear parents discussing, “What’s going on now? There’s a break? Why are there two heats?” My companion had questions, too: “How come the swimmers are split into different alternating team lanes? Why are the middle swimmers usually faster than the end-lane swimmers? How do they score points? How do they know who is going to be faster before they swim?”

There’s not a lot of explanation that happens at swim meets (you can’t explain every nuance of a sport prior to the event. Just like there’s no explanation at basketball games, or football games). Swimming can be a confusing sport to watch if you have no prior experience with it. It can even be confusing for swimmers, as I saw a few miss races due to miscommunications. (Ever missed a race, swimmers? Of course you have.)

Age group swim meets are no different. Multiple heats, endless swimmers, prelims, finals, consolation heats… It can all be confusing for a first-time spectator. I remember my first “big meet,” ogling almost in shock at the well-oiled machine that whirled in front of me. I had no idea where to go, what to do, how to swim my race. I never appreciated how confusing it can be in the stands, for spectators, for parents. Most parents endure, cheer fanatically for a son or daughter, then return to that really good book.

But for me last Tuesday, it was endlessly fascinating to watch swimming at its grassroots level. First, techniques vary with astounding degrees. Some swimmers do the wave breaststroke. Others do the flat breaststroke. But yet others perform some variation of breaststroke I’ve never seen before – some strange technique that could, for all intensive purposes, be ground-breaking. (In high school, I once myself invented “the bent arm backstroke.” It didn’t work.) Even if you don’t know “swim technique,” it’s interesting to see how swimmers manage to pull through the water. Stroke variations are much more present at the high school level than at the Olympic level. Also, you can tell which teams stress which details – the dives, the streamlines. I determined the team my cousin swam for stressed streamlines in particular, because their streamlines were overall pretty great, no matter the swim level. I started rooting for them, because they did the details right. And that’s what it’s all about. Learning and appreciating how to move efficiently through the water, win, lose, or draw.

What I realized, watching these sixty or eighty high school girls swim, was that the wonderful thing about swimming -- and watching high school swimming -- is that these girls are learning skills they can do forever, at any age. They probably won’t make the Olympics. But they can now swim when they are 50. Or when they are 80. When they are like my Grandma, at 96. In our society, where many kids can’t even swim adequately, these girls now have lifelong skills they’ll appreciate. They can do flip turns and dives and backstroke and butterfly long into their golden years, and for that, they will lead healthier, happier, more active lifestyles.

We forget that swimming, at its core, is an activity that people do to stay fit. Yes, elite competition is great, but it only lasts so long at that level. Afterwards, the sport becomes more about staying fit, having fun, and finding your own goals and records to break. Everyone will learn that lesson – even Michael Phelps. (One day, he’ll have to look up lap swim times, just like everyone else…)

Though it took me 11 years to make it back to a high school swim meet, I’m going to a lot more in the future. Watching high school swimming is just as fun as watching the Olympics, if you know what to watch for. Maybe you watch for a great, practiced streamline. Or a gritty charge to the wall. A decision not to breathe into the turn. A hard-fought last 25. A focus on technique. A pacing strategy. (I’m the guy in the stands saying, “Now watch what this girl’s going to do, she’s going to totally chase down this other one…”)

True swim fans enjoy watching swimming at any level. I thought that after these Olympics were over, I’d be experiencing the “swimming doldrums” for a few months. But watching tomorrow’s next superstars – or next superstar lap swimmers – is just as exciting.

Just don’t show up 20 minutes early. There’s no tailgating for high school dual meets. Yet.

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