July/August 2006 Issue

Tales From a Swim Virgin

by Amy Wu

Editor's note: Rochester Area Masters swimmer Amy Wu shares a "blog report" of her first-time experience at USMS Nationals in Coral Springs, Fla.

I am a swim virgin and until recently it was easy to hide this, especially among my water-phobic friends.

To those non-swimmers who fear the water as much as a root canal, I receive swift praise when I boast of swimming four days a week for two miles a practice. A mile seems like eternity to them, while to my seasoned swim mates it is a mere warm-up.

So it was with great pride (disguising my insanity) that I told my friends that I was headed to the USMS Short Course Nationals in Coral Springs, Fla. They had no idea what USMS was but it sounded very official, kind of like the CIA.

"Is that like the Olympics?" a friend asked. "Well it's something like that," I said. "Are you like some internationally famous swimmer?" another friend asked. "Well, that explains those shoulders."

Janet Evans Wanna-be
I was delusional in the same way that a really overweight guy might view himself as a Chippendales. I imagined myself standing tall on the block, staring at a sea of spectators in a sleek Speedo suit, spinning through water. I had a dream that I was the Chinese-version of Janet Evans. In truth, my competitive career started at 29, which was last year. Only recently had I learned to dive off the blocks, and streamline under the water and not over the water.

In truth anyone could sign up for Nationals. There were qualifying times, none of which I made, but similar to the "handicap" rules in golf, we novices could slip in because we were allowed three free races. Why admit this to the non-swimming world?

But to my teammates - superb swimmers with records and a competitive history running back to kindergarten - I was the most amateur of all. There was no hiding my newness. I only started to swim masters in 2004. I had only competed in a handful of local meets and open and postal swims. I was almost embarrassed to tell my experienced teammates that I was going to Nationals with them. Thankfully no one asked "Why?" But I began asking myself that as the date neared.

Three weeks up to the meet I began waking up in the middle of the night wondering what I had done. How would I get off the blocks in front of all of these people? And I started to question my game plan; I would compete in my "I love 2 swim" suit and soft red cap. I would wear my earrings, faux-diamond necklace and that jade bracelet that I had nicknamed my "Chinese bling." I was treating the meet as if it were an off-off Broadway performance.

The anxiety started to set in when a kind teammate told me that I really couldn't compete in a suit like that. It was like playing the Wimbledon in a dress. Like a last-minute test taker looking to cram, I asked my coach what I could do to start to train, like right now. While she thought it was great I was going, she was also realistic. "It's kind of late for that," she said in all honesty.

Nonetheless, in the few weeks before taking the big leap I received a crash course from my coach and teammates on what I might expect at Nationals. Case in point my coach tells me that on the relay block I will be pitted against a row of big tall fast men, but that I shouldn't freak out and rather just swim as fast as I could. It turned out to be a mental savior as I stand against these human Redwoods like a Charlie Brown tree.

Now that I had already gotten on a moving roller coaster, it was too late to get off.

The camaraderie started in the cab from the airport on the way to the hotel, where I struck up chat with Jessica Klotz with Maryland Masters who blew me away with her competitive experience: swam since a girl, swam during college, coached swimming at Johns Hopkins. She seemed rather stunned to hear that this was only my third meet. This was her fourth Nationals. "Don't get intimated," she said before we parted. "Just have fun."

I learned that swimmers can sense other swimmers as if they had Speedo tattooed on their faces. "Swimmer, swimmer," a gaggle whispered as I walked into the lobby of the infamous La Quinta Inn.

Forget About South Beach
The following morning I took the plunge. Forget about the plans of clubbing in South Beach. My roommate and I were up at 5:50 a.m. ready to head over to the complex with teammates. Did I mention that I am not a morning person, and can't string a sentence together until post 9 a.m.?

Driving to a pool before the sun emerged was surreal. As dawn disappeared, the deck seemed to sprout a community of sleek and tanned bodies, armed with body-length suits and goggles and suntan lotion. Never in my swimming life had I been to a complex with three pools. Never in my life had I seen so many people in swimsuits.

Challenge one would be to even get a workout. I quickly discovered that it would be near impossible to slip into a lane of my speed. Apparently the only lane where I would truly fit in would be the 65-and-over lane. But these silver-haired swimmers looked all business, and I wasn't about to mess with them.

So I leapt into the slowest lane that I could find and swam as fast as I could, only to realize that the lane mates were racing up to me. I was like a Honda Civic in a highway of speeding Porsches (as my father later pointed out, at least I wasn't a Yugo, heart wanting to go but legs and arms simply failing).

The sprint lane was just as challenging; after dashing to the end I had to weave through other lanes since I didn't have enough brawn to climb out without a ladder. Why did L.A. rush hour traffic come to mind?

Quirky Rituals
Swimming is also a sport of quirky rituals that I would soon learn through trial and observation. Meets, as I'd come to realize, were long, full-day affairs that required more patience than standing in line for a Disney ride at the peak of summer.

In retrospect I couldn't believe I had planned on clicking through my one or two events swiftly, and then going shopping. No such luck. The idea of a meet isn't simply to plop in the water, splash and then dash, but to be a part of the experience.

This meant keeping track of when my teammates would swim, and when I would swim. I've never been much of a multitasker, but this meet put me to the test. I was juggling everything from keeping my eye on the clock, the program, the races and holding onto the camera, water bottle and trying to settle my nerves before the inevitable first race.

The deck was a rowdy landscape of people screaming, "Come on!" "Go, go, goooo!" or my favorite line, "Pick it up." There were ritualistic ways to cheer the swimmer on like flopping ones arms to and fro as a swimmer turned to do the backstroke. I watched and then screamed on cue.

Hanging over my head was the reality that I needed to do the most dreaded of all: get my suit on for race number one. Enter the locker room, as packed as Wal-Mart. There was a sea of women grunting and squeezing themselves into these full body suits, which looked terrifying to me. "This is worse than a girdle," a woman sweated. "This is a workout in itself," someone else said.

I was happy I had listened to a seasoned teammate who talked me into buying my first Aquablade (a swimsuit with spandex legs that reach the knee) two weeks before Nationals.

I had inhaled and exhaled myself into what I thought felt like a straight jacket. The suit was unforgiving and revealed every problematic part of my body. I looked like I was ready to join a gang or swim the English Channel. "Are you having fun?" an elderly woman in the locker room asked me as I huffed and puffed in my second skin.

Up until then I thought I was having a lot of fun, revolving from tent to deck to hospitality room where I felt I had an excuse to pig out since this was a swim meet after all. I enjoyed watching the lanes of awesome swimmers and the hunky eye candy, but hanging over my head like a guillotine was the reality that I was here to compete. Race #1, the butterfly.

On-the-Block-Off-the-Block Tango
Confessions from the swim virgin: I have never swum butterfly in a race before. As recently as a year ago I was doing the boat-anchor version of the stroke, where I sunk to the near bottom struggling to surface again.

I didn't want to get intimated but I did. My brain began playing tricks on me. What if I went blank when I went off the block and started to accidentally do the freestyle instead? What if I got so nervous I tumbled off the blocks and plopped into the water? What if I did a belly flop? What if my goggles fell down to my neck after diving in would I have to stop dead in the lane and fix them, or would I simply drop dead?

Meanwhile I was struggling to get my cap on without it flying out of my hands like a helium balloon unleashed. Racing caps, as I learned, were not nearly as easy to handle as the cloth caps I loved. With mighty force I tried to stuff my stubborn hair in, and could feel myself tearing hair out. Was putting on a cap supposed to be this painful? I was having a cap crisis, with a fringe of hair sticking out from the back of the cap making me look like Krusty the Clown.

The butterflies in my stomach were churning wildly, my heart thumping hard. I felt like a passenger in the long rickety ride up the roller coaster, slow and steady just before the peak when the coaster drops and I scream, "Get me off of this ride!"

I got on the block as I heard "on your mark," but just as I was about to dive in, I heard, "swimmers step off your blocks." Some culprit had false started. I can't believe this is happening. It had taken me everything to even step on the block. Maybe I could pull off a Houdini and escape.

Now here it where my fondest meet memories occurs. As a swim virgin I was completely dependent on an awesome group of teammates. Without their guidance I wouldn't have made it off the blocks or perhaps emerged from the locker room. "It's OK, it's all good," someone said. "Not to worry, just shake it off," someone else said. They were very kind.

And then the beep went off and I could feel myself tearing down the lane, gaining speed. Before I knew it, it was over. And just to think that nearly 47 seconds before I had wanted to do this as much as I wanted a root canal. Now I was relishing the joy of finishing, and shaving three seconds off my last time. And in this whirlwind of insanity I could hear myself thinking, "When can I do this again?"

Swimming With the Golden Girls
An unspoken rule in the water world is to never try anything new at a competition, but there is a first time for every event. For me that was the 500 free where I would be seeded with people of similar times.

I remembered the times when I swam the warm-ups, and estimated that I finished in 15 minutes. That seemed a bit too slow but I rounded it down to 10 minutes. Surely I could do this in 10 minutes right? It turned out that I was placed in Heat 1 along with the Golden Girls set. But swimming is a sport that is less age biased than others. There were 70-year-olds who could kick my ass. To the novice swimmer who had never gone past the 50 splash-and-dash in a race, the 500 yard was like a leap from bunny hill to intermediate slope in skiing.

A few weeks before I had decided on what seemed an awesome game plan. I would swim 100 slow, 100 fast, 100 slow, 100 fast, etc. Ten minutes before the race I modified this to 25 slow, 25 fast pattern, with the idea that I would somehow gain speed with this slow-fast pattern. Thank heavens a teammate kindly told me that this probably wouldn't work.

OK, so bad idea, now with five minutes to the swim, what to do? How about starting out slow and picking up speed, this teammate suggested. I decided to start in the water, enough of the get-on-get-off-the-blocks thing.

I plopped in, heart racing, and hands grasping the walls. To my left was an elderly woman wearing nose plugs whose coach was telling her, "Now don't go out fast, keep your pace."

The next moment is one for the books. Like a bat out of hell, over the block, appeared Jane Katz, a swim friend and fellow New Yorker. I hadn't seen Jane since we met over coffee in Manhattan several months ago. She was leaning over me screaming, "Amy, you're going to do great!" In all my nervousness, JaneÑand I adore JaneÑlooked like the Energizer Bunny on speed.

"Oh my god, where did she come from?" My mind was frazzled. It was one of those moments where I watched her mouth open in talk, but I could no longer hear a thing. "Jane (where did she come from?) good to (what have I gotten myself into?), see you (I'm about to race, why am I chit-chatting?)," I spat out.

I remembered Jane's 100-watt smile as I set off to conquer the 500. I can't remember my thoughts during the swim, only that I hoped I could keep my mind in check so I didn't stop dead in the lane out of fear. I could feel my teammates leaning over the lane cheering me on. The "Go, go!" is mental fuel.

It was an accomplishment to simply finish, and the seed time was an unintentional sand bag. I came in at 7:37. I had blazed past the silver-haired swim ladies like a shark. "Amy, you looked great flying past those 70something-year-olds," a teammate later joked. Another dirty secret from the virgin: sandbagging felt kind of good.

Swim Gods and Goddesses
A major highlight of the meet was meeting the swim god and goddesses, aka, the Olympians Rowdy Gaines and Dara Torres. A teammate and I had signed up for an end of the day clinic. By 4 p.m., I was already exhausted and wondering if I was suffering from chlorine overload. Sure it would be great to meet the rock stars of swimming, but secretly I wanted to go to bed.

But I am jolted back to life when I see Rowdy Gaines, and leap before him as my celebrity-crazed self. I shove the camera into the hands of my teammate, and tell him to take the photo, like right now.

Dara Torres is taller and leaner than any woman I've ever seen, all legs and muscle. She looks like Elle McPherson. We all get in the water, choosing our lanes, and the god and goddess say that they will help us improve our freestyle through a series of drills.

Rowdy Gaines seems to take a special interest in me, since I apparently have much to work on. Somewhere in between a drill he pops up like a sea otter, taps me and says, "I think we have the drill to help you." Turns out that my arms are coming out too wide in the freestyle, so it's looking a bit like a hybrid of butterfly-freestyle.

I am happy that I am bad enough to stand out. I am beaming when Dara Torres says, "You are swimming too straight." I feel privileged to be in the same pool as these human mermaids.

Seeking Fellow Virgins
Within the scraps of spare time, I search for fellow swim virgins. I don't have much luck, but I do find some ex-virgins. There is Kari Bachman of New Mexico who matter-of-factly tells me that she has never qualified for any times, but this is her fourth Nationals and she loves it.

"I love seeing people I've met before at other Nationals and catching up with them," Bachman said. "Particularly seeing the older swimmers, that's so inspiring to me."

There is Michael Martin from New Jersey, whom I meet at the clinic. He doesn't qualify either but comes to swim his best and have fun in the sun. "I always try to do better than I did the last time," he tells me a week after the meet. "Someday if I get a 10th place at Nationals I will have thought I've died and went to heaven."

Goodbye Swim Virgin
By day four I have had enough of thrills, but wait it's not over yet. Our team leader tells me that they have me signed up for another relay.

But on this last day I no longer want to race. I just want to lie in the sun, have a few margaritas and enjoy the eye candy. I want to exhale and make sense of this all. I've had a thrill watching my teammates swim, impressed by their swimming savvy and talent. I am grateful to them for leading me through this maze, for walking me up to the block, for reminding me that beyond the adrenaline rush it's all for fun. And for including me in the relays despite the fact that my being there means they have to work harder.

This is the second relay that I've swum at this meet. I am going to go first, I need to go fast. When the beeper goes off, I am blazing down the lane, but wait there's a hand in the water. Maybe some over-exuberant teammate wants to cheer me on in the water. (I am so clueless that I don't know it's illegal for someone to do that.)

Then, as I am about to turn, the hand grabs mine hard, and won't let go. It's a teammate who says, "Stop, stop, stop." It takes a second to register that it was a false start, and I have swum an entire lap at full speed all for naught. I'd have to get back on the block, and do it again. I have won the lottery by swimming in three out of five events with false starts. Lucky me. We eventually swim the race, cheering each other on, and by now I have adopted the cheers of "come on, pick it up!"

All of my hair is in my cap and I'm even starting to like this suit even though it makes me look as buff as Lynne Cox. I am feeling a mild chill, or is a mild thrill? I make one last trip to the locker room and the beloved tent, where my teammates are taking down our pit stop for the past three days. I slip the Aquablade into my backpack, exhale and secretly bury my virgin status. I have arrived.

Back at the pool where the seeds of insanity first started, my coach asks if I'd do it again.

I quickly answer, "Yes," and then pause. "But I don't know why." (I guess I'll find out from that Ph.D student from Indiana University who is examining the psyche of competitive swimmers. Would we all be in a straightjacket if we didn't swim?)

After more pondering I know exactly why I came, even though I am the ultimate water virgin. I love the water and love swimming, it is a sport that has done much for me. I have always longed to be part of a community of people who share a similar passion, and who "get it." I've swum solitary for so long and now I was finally surrounded by swim junkies. I was in chlorine heaven.

And as I left South Florida a voice whispered that I would resurface at another meet. That voice became louder as I jetted back north. It was as clear as the waters that I had swum in, and would surely swim in again.