When swimming becomes a team sport

Maybe if we had been more excited, we would have made it to the state championship meet.

This is me during my junior year of high school with three of my teammates. I'm the one on the far left, practicing the swim version of Rodin's The Thinker.

This is me during my junior year of high school with three of my teammates. I’m the one on the far left, practicing the swim version of Rodin’s The Thinker.

While swimming is normally a pretty individual sport (a team wins by garnering more points than everyone else; those points are the result of place rankings in each event), there is one instance where us swimmers must work together in order to make it into the wall first: relays. Similar to track relays, we take turns swimming, passing off the responsibility to another swimmer simply by touching the wall. They also come in a few flavors: 200 freestyle, 400 freestyle, and 200 IM (all four strokes).

Teammate bonding???

Teammate bonding???

Relays are many swimmers’ favorites, simply because it’s a chance to take all of the pressure of a race’s outcome off one person’s shoulders. We work together, cheering on one another and avoiding blaming one person for a loss. I’m quite often the slowest person on my college club’s relays, mainly because they’re mixed gender and I can’t keep up with  the two fastest guys and I’m sure not the fastest girl on the team, so I appreciate this commaderie.

While we may lose together, we also win together, and no matter your relative speed, it’s always nice to know that you directly had a hand in the result. In 2011, two of my relays made the national Top 10 in the US Masters organization. While these things get so specific (ie 200 meter freestyle with all women aged 18-25), it’s still an accomplishment the organization itself deems worthy enough to publish.

One of my college teammates at USMS nationals, 2011

One of my college teammates at USMS nationals, 2011

Now, we don’t all just willy-nilly swim one after another. There’s order to this! We use a special racing start to maximize the ability to watch the swimmer coming in. It’s important to judge the timing; half a second late, and there goes first place. On the flip side, if your feet leave the starting block before the previous swimmer’s fingertips hit the wall, then an official can disqualify the whole team.

We even order ourselves in a certain way: the second fastest person starts first, the next two fastest are second and third, and the fastest person has the position of anchor, or last. The first leg provides for an instant idea of the top relay teams and can set the tone for the rest of the race, while the middle two work to pass other teams. The anchor then has the opportunity to either get pumped at their team’s success or fall into a mindset that would allow him or her to pick up the slack.

In the heat of a race. Notice how guy in lane 9 is slow--the person in front of him has already popped up his head, while this guy is still swinging his arms to get momentum.

In the heat of a race. Notice how guy in lane 9 is slow–the person in front of him has already popped up his head, while this guy is still swinging his arms to get momentum.

In high school, my fastest 50 free ever was the result of a relay race. It was one of the last races my senior year and the last chance my relay team had to make it to the state meet. The state championships are extremely competitive–they only take the top 22 swimmers and top 16 relay teams for each event for the entire state of Utah–and my high school hadn’t had a girl there for seven years.

As the anchor, it fell on my shoulders to finish the race off strong and earn us a spot. Two of my teammates finished and the third had just completed half of her leg when I climbed onto the block, tugged down my cap, pushed my goggles on tighter, and curled both sets of toes over the edge. I bent my knees slightly, leaned my weight forward, and lifted my arms in front of me, letting my hands drop lower to the match my teammate’s position in front of me as she drew nearer. As she was less than a foot from the wall, I whipped my arms back over my shoulders before springing forward into a tight line.

It was the most magical race I’d ever experienced. Only a few times in my life have I swam and felt like the water was rolling me forward instead of fighting my strokes, like I could have spent an eternity swimming at that pace in the longest pool imaginable. The feel of bubbles rising around my face and water rushing past my skin were sweeter than the caress a mother gives her newborn. I practically smiled at my coach as I neared the finishing wall and took one last breath, watching him frantically swing his arms in excitement.

My relay team didn’t make it to state. We weren’t even close. However, it was that moment that reminded me of my love of swimming and propelled me to keep swimming into college. I haven’t had a swim like that since, and it’s been three years. I guess I had better start swimming in more relays…

Another teammate at USMS nationals

Another teammate at USMS nationals

Okay, so most of you will probably not have the opportunity to try out a swim relay. Anyway, what’s your favorite team bonding memory?

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2 thoughts on “When swimming becomes a team sport

  1. What a great post! I was never good at team sports, so it’s wonderful to get this insider perspective into team bonding. But I have had that same kind of magical experience with yoga, where a particular session feels inspired and keeps me coming back.

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