Swim (meet) Sunday

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Right now, I’m collapsed in an armchair on campus, really relishing the tiredness felt throughout my body that always seems so well deserved after a swim meet. Today, my university’s swim club traveled about an hour south to Anacortes, WA to compete against other local swim clubs, and we definitely conquered the competition! And by competition, I mean a bunch of sixty-year-old men in Speedos and  women with gray hair so short that a swim cap seems unnecessary.

You see, there are two main organizations of swimmers in the United States. The first is USA Swimming, which caters to collegiate teams, extreme competiveness, sponsorships, and high-stakes meets. Most Olympic swimmers are part of this. On the other hand, there’s US Masters, and my university swim club is a workout group under a team that encompasses the greater Puget Sound area. Meets can be more of meetups between long-lost friends, their online articles and magazine spend more time talking about ways to avoid injury rather than increasing speed, and new personal best times are more important than any medal. This kind of laid-back environment attracts older people returning to the sport, those trying it for the first time, or those contending with the near-unavoidable decline in speed that starts after a peak around age 25.

As a result, my teammates and I are often the only swimmers in the youngest age group, 18-25. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s incredibly inspiring to see swimmers in their nineties gently sliding in the water instead of diving off starting blocks, each slow stroke carefully placed during the race until they somehow finish and glide over to the nearest ladder. These people often show great sportsmanship, striking up conversations with swimmers to either side of their lanes before a race and offering a hand over the lane line for a post-race handshake, and they never fail to include us college kids. Today, I got one of those handshakes after I beat a 67 year-old gentleman next to me by a second and a half in the 400 meter free. No matter what the time says, I think he still wins over me at this point.

One of the biggest ways to encourage each other is to stand at the end of the lane that a teammate is swimming in and yell, cheer, and dance as wildly and loudly as possible. There’s a whole voodoo ritual that each new swimmers must learn piece by piece, actually. However, just for you my faithful readers, I’ll lay it out straight. Ready?

1. You must position yourself at the end of the lane before the swimmer gets up on the starting block. This ensures that your teammate will actually see you down there before diving in. It may add a bit of extra pressure, but when you are standing at the base of the starting block, each hand gripping a side, only leaving to frequently tug your cap down and make goggles tighter with a quick press of the heel of the hand, a pop of air whooshing out, it’s incredibly reassuring to raise your eyes, following the black line striping the bottom until they find the sight of your friends gathered 25 yards away.

Me sophomore year of high school, probably more concerned about the sad state of my nail polish than my performance

Me sophomore year of high school, probably more concerned about the sad state of my nail polish than my performance

2. After the swimmer is atop the block following a long whistle, but before the referee calls for starting positions, it’s okay to sneak in a quick shout of their name. However, once each swimmer dips down until their hands rest on the front of the block and leans their weight over the pool, any sort of noise that may obscure the start meep! will earn you a very nasty glance from an official.

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3. Once the race begins, any amount of noise or movement is encouraged. My senior year of high school, us girls hit up the dollar store for cheap pom poms and made up impromptu cheers on the spot, oftentimes losing chunks of plastic strips with our exhuberant waving. There is nothing quite like getting pumped up for your own races by dizzying yourself breathless with a constant stream of yells, feeling the wave of a fast flip turn wash over your feet and dash against your ankles, and only increasing the volume as the race gets close. Also, I learned today that there is something very cathartic about screaming at your ex until you’re hoarse, even if it’s only the word “go” over and over again.

A few of my high school teammates cheering on fellow swimmers

A few of my high school teammates cheering on fellow swimmers

4. As you may know, organized swimming has four distinct strokes, and there are certain cheering styles for each, believe it or not. Here’s the breakdown:

    • Freestyle: The swimmer has their head in the water for the entire race, aka they can’t see or hear much, so this is where being down there ready to cheer before the race is so crucial. Alternatively, the cheer-er can pace the side of the pool and make arm signals as the swimmer breathes to the side, although this obnoxious behavior is normally reserved for coaches. Either way, we cheer just as loud, as it’s the thought that counts here.
    • Fly: Actually, there’s nothing really special, although the swimmer might be able to see you when they breathe. Make silly faces! Inexperienced swimmers will sometimes smile and subsequently swallow a whole lotta water. Mabye this should be reserved for the competition…
    • Backstroke: When the swimmer flip turns and pushes off the wall, they can generally see the people standing at the wall. We raise our arms high above our head, flop our wrists around like feet, and yell “kick!”
    • Breaststroke: This is my favorite! For those unfamiliar with breaststroke, there’s a period where the swimmer is fully underwater, then the upper body emerges for a breath before sinking below again. With each breath, we shout in synchrony, following the pace of the swimmer. Normally, “go!” is the go-to, but it can easily be mixed up with the occasional “whoop!” and “whup!”. In high school, my friend and I had a routine of trading off calls between us, so every other one that we did could be done with extra energy!
One of my high school teammates breathing during breast stroke.

One of my high school teammates breathing during breast stroke.

5. There ya have it! After the conclusion of a race and the swimmer makes their way back to the rest of the group, they’re always greeted with high fives and hugs, regardless of their performance.

Swim meets are not only for the competition, but for the social and support aspect too. We may only see these other swimmers a few times a year, but now that it’s my third year as a Masters swimmer, it’s starting to feel a bit like family.

Unfortunate Speedo color choice

Backstroke flags and unfortunate Speedo color choice

Stars in the Sea

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Vermilion Star, Mediaster aequalis, at the Vancouver Aquarium

My earliest memories of seastars* are the times my parents drove my sister and me down to Sea World, and next to the stingray feeding tank, there were touch tide pools. We could carefully pet their backs (aboral side) with a pinky finger, and if we were lucky, a worker would pluck one off of the rocks lining the side and hand us it on our flat, outstretched palms. It tickled, its arms wiggling only a little bit in protest at this far-too-often injustice.

*The scientific community is working away from names for invertebrates that include “fish,” so starfish = sea stars and jellyfish = jellies.

The seastars always seemed so fragile; I gathered this from the way we were taught to hold them, as well as the way the arms would snap off of my dead one at home that came from the local craft store. It wasn’t until my summer course in Mexico that I realized they aren’t as breakable as I thought. I tugged them off of barnacles with ease as my class snorkeled, grabbing a rock with one hand while craddling the star with another as the waves swung my legs about.

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Oral side of a Pyramid sea star

In fact, sea stars are incredibly resilient. There are a few species, such as the Blue Sea Star, Linckia laevigata, that actually leave arms behind on purpose; they just creep away while one stays locked put. Eventually, an entire individual will grow from this one piece.

Sea stars use structures called tube feet (the circles in the grooves of the Vermilion star, top) to move as well as anchor themselves in place for protection against strong waves as well as predators. These act like suction cups, and the sea star draws in water first through a madreporite, a spot you’ll always see on their tops, off center and between two arms. That water then travels through the stone canal, the ring canal, the radial canals, and the lateral canals (sounds like Venice!) to connect to each tube foot, which then uses a series of muscles to stick each one to the rock and create suction.

On this Pyramid sea star, the madreporite is the brown spot.

On this Pyramid sea star, the madreporite is the brown spot.

Now, sea stars come in many flavors. All invertebrates from the phylum Echinodermata (includes sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sand dollars, and brittle stars) have pentaramous radial symmetry, which means that things come in multiples of five, like arms in sea stars, rows of tube feet in sea cucumbers, and the petaloids of sand dollars.

Five petaloids on a dead sand dollar

Five petaloids on a dead sand dollar

Some sea stars have way more than the typical five arms we automatically picture. When we snorkeled at Los Islotes in the Sea of Cortez, a California sea lion rookery, we saw a crown-of-thorns for the first time. A few of the girls plus one of my professors and I were letting the current pull us down alongside the island, snapping pictures and maneuvering around with a flick of our fins. I had just passed over a very shallow part and turned back to get a closer look at some coral when, for some reason, I turned my head to the left to find a large male sea lion had clambered in a few feet away and was now staring at me! I cursed the lack of peripheral vision inherent with a mask and got out of there ASAP. My heart still pounding (those guys are waaay bigger than you would think, and nasty too during breeding season), I almost missed the spiky new thing right underneath me. In fact, I didn’t really take notice of it until Shauna, a classmate, found me a few minutes later and asked to borrow my camera to take a picture of it. Ladies and gentlemen, the crown-of-thorns:

Crown-of-thorns, Acanthaster ellsii

Crown-of-thorns, Acanthaster ellsii

Another common feature up and down the Sea of Cortez is the Gulf sun star, with an astounding 25 arms! The color of these individuals varied from beach to beach; most were a mottled mossy green, baby pink, and mustard yellow,with this nice salmon-y underside. They were often found wrapped around the corner of a rock, so when plucked off,  they even doubled as hats!

Oral side of a Gulf sun star

Oral side of a Gulf sun star

Swim Sunday!

Have you ever wrestled an alligator?

I have, and he came in the form of a 6′ 2″, very well-muscled swim teammate. Normally swimming isn’t a contact sport, but occasionally we take a break from business and have some fun (and work out grievances haha) with one another.

In this case, we were playing a game of Sharks and Minnows, aka probably the best way to drown yourself. One swimmer at the center calls for his minnows at the end of the pool to join him in the water, so we’ll slide in, streams of bubbles following our feet to the pool bottom. The point of this game is to tag other swimmers with their heads above the water, so it’s a test of lung capacity and inconspicuousness. They then become sharks and the game continues in rounds until one minnow remains.

A favored technique is to bob along the surface like a seal, then dive to the bottom as a shark approaches and stroke to the left or right to avoid any grabbing hands. This practice can break down in a few ways, however. It can be easy to fight off a grip on an ankle or wrist in order to reach safety at the half line or wall, but even two or three of the smallest girls on the team can practically launch a guy out of the water when they’re pulling at the same time.

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Schooling fish in the Sea of Cortez

Now Cole, someone I’ve been swimming with for about three years, has a reputation as the king of Sharks and Minnows. While he doesn’t bite like some of my other teammates do (yes, it happens), he doesn’t hesitate to kick or scratch to get away. However, I caught him all by myself, and so I’ll fill you in on some of my Sharks and Minnows secrets:

1. Grab large body parts, like around the stomach or neck (jk…maybe), so your victim can’t slip past you with a flick of the ankle. On the flip side, lotion yourself up good before a game! In my case, I wrapped my arms around his midsection, grabbed my wrists, and prepared my shoulders for a beating.

2. Anchor yourself. It’s definitely an advantage for a shark to be able to stand upright and leverage him or herself against the pool bottom while in the shallow end. Sometimes, it turns into a tugging match, the shark forced to dig in their heels against the onslaught of an especially strong kick.

3. Wait ’em out. Hopefully your opponents choose to breathe rather than pass out, so if you simply hold them under water for long enough (which can be considerably shortened by letting them struggle), they’ll do your job for you and pop up to the surface, where you’ll be waiting to bop them on the head!

See, you didn’t know swim practice could be this fun, right? Animal ball is another game we play, and it’s basically water polo, already a very violent sport in and of itself, with the added bonus of no rules! I’ll save that one for another post though…

Have any of you played Sharks and Minnows as a kid? Was it even more intense than our college version? What other water games make your favorites list?

Every weekend, I’m going to be throwing out something swimming-related. Now, I realize the extent that most of you  lovely readers have with swimming is paddling around the pool as little kids and cooling off in a pool during the summer, so I’ll try to keep this relevant! Also look forward to a few swim workout sets here and there along with some techniques to get yourself off to a strong swim workout.

I have an actual swim meet next Sunday, so since I’ll be super excited, you should be super excited about my next post too!

Part of the team at USMS Nationals, April 2011

Part of the team at USMS Nationals, April 2011

There and Back Again

Whelp, now how do I combine both subjects I want to talk about into one blog? I figure discussing both of them in the first post is a good way to start!

To that end, let me start by saying that I’m studying marine biology and I enjoy swimming, being a competitive swimmer for seven years. I’ve never really had the chance to combine both, as the first is normally in the classroom and possibly in the field, and the latter takes place in a pool. This blog is the first time I’ve gotten to combine them both…with the exception of this one time.

I spent five weeks this past summer in the Sea of Cortez for a tropical marine biology course: I  snorkeled, camped on the beach, swam with sea lions, and explored the nightlife in the city. Also, I spent most mornings in a stifling hot classroom, the better part of a week alone on a sandbar counting fiddler crabs under the Mexican sun, and many hours holed in up in my hotel room completing papers.

Uca crenulata fiddler crab

Uca crenulata fiddler crab

On one of those days where I typed away on my bed, my roommate planned to snorkel out to a point where a classmate and she had carried out their independent research and look again for some missing supplies. Needing to get some exercise, I offered to join her.

Now, I wasn’t going to paddle along the shore with a snorkel, so this right here was open water swimming, something I’d never ever done before. You know those activities that you tell yourself you’re going to pick up when you’re out of school/have more money/have more time/get your lazy butt out of bed? For me, learning to swim in the ocean and eventually compete in an open-water race is one of ’em.

So, I pulled on my swimsuit, the one that’s hot pink with checkered trim, dug my cap and goggles deep out of my suitcase, and left my sandy flippers on the balcony. Now, I quickly figured out why open water swimming is terrifying:

  • You move in directions you aren’t trying to, like out to sea
  • Most of the time the water is too murky to see the bottom, so there might be some mutant, man-eating fish down there
  • Waves come out of nowhere to wash a bunch of seawater filled with who-knows-what down your throat
  • Most of the time the water is too murky to see the bottom

But you know what? It’s still one of my favorite memories from the trip. I didn’t let the fact that I might never be found if I sank overpower my confidence in my swimming skills, I swam a distance I never have before without launching off of walls, and I definitely got a kick when I turned around and found I had left my flipper-enhanced roommate in my dust (err, bubbles).

Long story short, try what you’ve been wanting to try. Do it alone; do it with others. Share what you have learned. Do it again.

The author next to a resting California sea lion pup

Me next to a resting California sea lion pup! Los Islotes, Baja California Sur