Michael Phelps, the drudgery of swimming, and me.

I swam competitively from elementary school through high school and I can say with some authority that swim practice is unspeakable boring.  Racing can be fun, but training is just the worst.  It isn’t like true team sports, where you can shoot the shit with your teammates on the field, and it isn’t like running, where you can while away the miles chatting with friends.  Hell, it isn’t even like open water swimming, where you at least have the adventure of waves and currents.  It’s just you, alone, with your head in the water, for hours.  It can suck.  When I was a kid, I swam for five hours a day in the summer, and I dreaded much of it.  I cannot imagine what it is like to be Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte, to swim those kind of hours, for the majority of your life.  They’ve sacrificed so much social interaction, no wonder they give bad interviews and no wonder Phelps wants to put this all behind him.

I used to dread practice, especially in the summer.  Three hours of back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, over and over.  Stroke, stroke, flip turn, stroke, this time faster, that time longer, again and again, for hours and hours.  Go home, eat, nap, and do it again for two more hours.  Five days a week.  There were many times I didn’t want to go to practice, and occasionally, there were times I just didn’t, choosing to read over another set of endless laps.

My coach was a mean son of a bitch too.  An old grumpy man, he was missing part of a finger from an accident he’d had on the shop floor of the local factory years and years ago.  He’d throw kickboards if he thought we were being lazy.  Who knows how he even became a coach.  He was serious, he was strict, and he believed in the tried and true method of getting in the time in the pool.  His unforgiving practices often made me dread the pool.  But mostly, I went and I swam hard.  Going, even when it was hard, dull, and boring, is what made me a decent swimmer, and it is what gave me the training to lace up my shoes to run on the days where I’d rather sit on the couch, or to tie my tie and go in and face a day of hell at work.  As a fast runner once said, you gotta want it, even when you don’t want it.

Time in the pool remains the best way to get fast, but few who criticize Michael Phelps this year for not training hard enough can begin to understand what it would mean for him to have trained harder.  Just at a time in his life when people were beginning to listen to him, when he was being allowed to have fun, we all wanted him to put his head back in the water.  I can’t blame him for resisting that.  And I can’t blame him for saying that after this, it’s over.  Good luck Michael, you are a hell of a swimmer, I hope whatever you do next fills you with excitement and allows for more engagement with the world, as for me, I like to get in a pool every now and then and relive the feeling of a coming at the wall fast, flipping efficiently, and pushing off again, but my days of hours in the pool are long since over.

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  1. On My Changing Relationship to the Goddamn Pool | Milo and the Calf

    […] And that’s because it is. Unlike running, where you can chat, listen to music or watch the scenery go by, or team sports where comradery is part of the goal, swimming is an individual endeavor where you spend most of your time with your head in the water, looking at a black line at the bottom of a pool, trying to remember what lap you’re on. As I’ve written about before, it can get dull. […]

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