Swim in This
Nothing takes the sting
out of homesickness like losing yourself in a sharp workout.The black line at
the bottom of the Toronto pool looks just like the black line at the San Antonio
pool and so on. I travel between thirty and forty weeks a year and my ability
to sneak in a swim just about anywhere has saved me from spending thousands
of dollars on therapy and pharmaceuticals, and not in that order. Whenever I
land, my second phone call is to the local YMCA. (My first is to my agent and
usually starts with Al, why am I working this dump?).
I have a love/hate relationship with the Young Men's Christian Association.
Let's start with love, shall we? The YMCA travel policy is an unbeatable deal.
My home Y costs just twenty-one dollars a month and with an AWAY sticker plastered
on the back of my membership card, I've been able to swim all over the U.S.
as well as in England and Canada, and very nearly for free. If it weren't for
Y's, I'd be yet another bored drone flipping through magazines on a hotel Stairmaster.
In terms of quality, Y pools are wildly unpredictable. The older ones were built
during the Depression, and are decorated with evil and horned gargoyles. Worse,
these old pools are often four scrawny lanes across, twenty yards long and gutterless.
One strong dolphin kick will reverberate against the walls for thirty minutes.
Also, twenty yard pools are an annoyance. All that math...two laps is forty
yards, not fifty, four laps is eighty yards, not one hundred, etc. If you ever
practice in one of these poolettes, keep in mind that the brilliant 400 IM you
whipped out- unshaved, untapered and over thirty- is actually a 360, and do
not enter this time at Nationals. (Or if you do, let me know so I can watch
your heat lap you).
YMCA pools of all lengths love their senior citizens. If the Y has just one
pool, it's water is often heated so as not to aggravate arthritis. I am not
complaining, as I believe in karma and I don't want to be stricken with arthritis,
but you'll hardly do your best workouts in 88 degree water. In addition to seniors,
Y's also love their kids. You remember kids- those little people who aren't
inclined to get out of the water to pee? Yes yes yes. All I'm saying is where
there's kids, there's also a possibility that the water wasn't overheated intentionally.
Chin up though, darlings, it's not all grim news. Just when you are about to
quit the sport and take up running, you'll show up at the Boise Family Y and
tear through their sparkling fifty meter jewel, or the Liberty County Y, (Hinesville,
Ga) another brand new pool that's virtually empty all day long or the Grants
Pass Y, (Or) where the pool is a bit older but the water sloshes about your
head like it's seen some serious swimming in it's day and why don't you show
it what you've got?
If the Y isn't your cup of coffee, try the local university. Except for the
hot, underflagged aquatic facility at Indiana State University at Evansville,
(which ought to hang its head in shame and step into a soundproof booth til
this article is finished), most university pools I've seen are delightful. The
water is crisp and cool, the backstroke flags dance seductively overhead and
the pace clocks are plugged in and synchronized. A good workout is practically
guaranteed, once you gain access the pool and there, my dears, is your problem.
While some schools let swimmers pay two to five dollars for a single swim- (UNLV,
Austin, Arizona, Indy and more), many require that you be a student at the university
to swim in their pool. What next, one has to be enrolled to take classes? Clearly,
these colleges are daring us to hack the system.
Getting by the minions guarding the lap pool is to be looked upon as one of
life's great challenges. These underpaid, overzealous elves love to halt the
traveling swimmer as she makes her way to the deck, saying things like- I can't
let you in without a student ID- or -actually, you are talking to the supervisor-
and finally, the trite but effective -ma'am, I'm calling security.
At great peril to my own health, I reveal a few favorite techniques. First off,
thanks to job-avoiding, parent-mooching, Peter Pan-esque slackers like myself,
it is perfectly acceptable to be a post-graduate student well into one's thirties.
Even though I lasted just one pop quiz into my own freshman year, I am a feverish
cafe observer and have, after much experimentation, put together a look that
says, I am so tired from research for my doctoral thesis on 16th Century Welsh
theater props that I forgot my student ID...is it ok to swim without one? If
that lie works- and it will if you also start crying when they waver- stay with
it, switching your swim times around so you always tell your story to a new
Where tears and deception fail, bribery often succeeds. Since I am a comic,
I often give away tickets to the comedy show, promising to make fun of the elf's
boss onstage that night. You, too, have something to offer. Swimming police
officers, assure the jittery elf that you will overlook the "herb" smell emanating
from his backpack. Retail slaves, make like Wise Men and come bearing gifts,
remembering that used Pixies' CDs are preferable to both frankincense and myrrh.
Frustrating the minimum wage elf is always some good fun. The goal here is to
make the elf roll his eyes and mutter, oh brother, if you have to swim that
bad, just get in.
Tell the elf you are an author, writing a children's story about a rebel kickboard
from the wrong side of the tracks and a debutante pull buoy who meet during
a distance workout and fall in love. They elope (at the King County Aquatic
Center) and go on the lam because they have to as the kickboard is wanted in
three pools for chafing the underarms of flutter kickers. (If this doesn't get
you in the pool, it will at least garner you a night's stay in a psychiatric
ward, which saves on hotel expenses).
Lean in and whisper to an elf of the opposite sex that nothing makes you friendlier
than a good workout. Ladies, make sure your legs are shaved before you try this
one and gentlemen, make sure yours aren't.
Once in the water, you'll find yourself adjusting to odd regional customs. As
you are a guest in their pool, it's best to swim like the locals. For example:
Bend, (Oregon) is home to every class of freak, and I say that with a kind of
admiration. Unlike the rest of the western civilization and Mississippi, Bend's
swimmers circle down the left side of the lane. They love to push off into normal,
right-side swimmers such as myself and gloat that, well, we do things different
here. Then they'll ask, with eyes narrowed and teeth bared, you aren't from
California, are you? Always say no.
Once these details are ironed out, circle swims are the same worldwide. Athletes
of all speeds share not enough lanes and the almost-sixteen year old lifeguards
are too busy scanning want ads to organize lanes into slow, medium and fast.
We swimmers are often left to judge for ourselves if pushing off now!
will have us catching up to this guy or getting in the way
of that girl.
Recently, in an unnamed pool in Michigan, I decided to work on the Jenny Thompson
freestyle chin tuck. Since I was looking down to the black line and not up at,
say, a slower swimmer's feet, I was unaware until it was too late that I was
swimming up a stranger's crotch. Thanks to paddles, oversized and sharpened
on a wet stone, I performed my first vasectomy. (Oops yes, but what a great
way to meet people).
Many lap pools operate without backstroke flags, some have them at one end only
and others stick their flags one, eight or twenty strokes from the wall. You
the swimmer have two options. You may either glance up from your ritual pre-workout
goggles adjustment and make note of the particulars, or you may add excitement
to your life and do what I do. Start a lap of backstroke. At the 24 1/2 yard
mark, peek around for flags and think to yourself, either this pool is 25 meters
not yards or I am about to crash my skull into the wa... Fade to black. See
stars and chirping birdies. Upon regaining consciousness, tell yourself that
Steve Young plays football with concussions far worse than yours, at the same
time forgetting that Steve makes fifty million dollars for doing it.
If you are at a pool with a weak or non-existent swimming program, locals will
immediately know that you are not from around here. A perfectly executed flip
turn will arouse great suspicion from a lifeguard who calls freestyle the crawl,
and dolphin kick on your back with Zoomers can mark you as a witch.
You may also find yourself doling out stroke instruction to eager novices, and
not the classic bend your elbows stuff of coaching lore but more rudimentary
tips. Things like, have you considered putting the cigarette out first and how
about wearing a swimsuit instead of pants. Always remember that you are an ambassador
for the sport and answer questions with enthusiasm. Example: No, tight Speedos
do not make men gay but that is some very forward thinking.
Be willing to (gently) suggest such hints as: Before we take on breaststroke,
has your wife given any thought to letting her hair get wet? Reassure that a
wet head is not an unnatural occurrence when one lowers oneself into 600 gallons
of water and see what greater mobility we have when we aren't laboring to protect
split ends and a home perm. Point out too, that she'll get more out of her kick
sets if she's not also reading large print romance novels at the same time.
It's hard to practice alone on the road- you are under constant siege from strange
pools, outrageous utility fees and your fellow Americans. Just remember why
you swim in the first place. If you can sob, pout, threaten or deceive, you
can make your workout happen.