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.
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.
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.
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!
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.