Saturday, November 8, 2008

Swimming Blues

Not swimming at all, is more like it.

I haven't been in the water since January, 2008. I'd taken my customary Holiday month-plus off, to try to get on top of everything family, and went for a workout one day at my local pool. It had been awhile since I swam and I felt slow in the water, so I put on my monster paddles (no wimp paddles for me -- bring on the dinner plates!) to try to hold some water.

It was a couple of weeks before I got in again and this time my shoulder hurt. So I thought I'd let it rest for awhile. After a couple months of this it never seemed to get better. I went to my doctor, who gave me a referral to an Orthopedist. He took an x-ray and scheduled me for an MRI.

Now I was certainly cool! The best part of that was casually saying to my friends, "Yeah, I'm scheduled for an MRI next week." I felt like a member of the 49ers! It was all I could do to not call the local TV stations and have them report on me. In the old days people used to say, "I'm going down to Cabo for the holiday," or "Loved it at the spring show in Milan," or "That horribly depressing film at Sundance really has Oscar buzz all over it," or "That reminds me of the color of the moon during the eclipse in Tierra del Fuego."

Now it's really all about injuries. And you aren't anything unless you have an Orthopedist who spells it "Orthopoedist" and claims to be a physician to a major Bay Area sports team. Bingo, I had both!

So the diagnosis was negative for anything torn. Good, I guess. But by that time I'd acquired "Frozen Shoulder" which made putting my hand on the steering wheel, and even sleeping tough. I had two complicated sleep positions. The first involved one arm by my side and the other one bent by my face, which looked a lot like a body that had just been thrown by the side of the road. My other position involved laying on my side with a pillow under my arm and resembled a kidnapping victim stuffed in the trunk of a car.

I went to physical therapy for awhile, but the passive-aggressive receptionist and the $4.50 parking really put a crimp in my motivation. So now I'm doing it on my own. We'll see how this develops.

I miss swimming. I miss being a swimmer. I miss skin that smells like chlorine and really clean feet, and not having to wash my hair at home. I miss flip turns and streamlines and leaving on the top. Sometimes going to the pool at Laney College each day to coach makes it better, because all my swimmers are doing it for me. But sometime it makes it worse, because I miss it so much.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


I vote for normal.

I just came back from watching my husband and daughter swim at Lake Berryessa this morning. There were hundreds and hundreds of people swimming, broken up into "waves" of categories which allowed a more manageable pack. I first did this swim in the early 1980s, when they had free beer after the swim. The Bureau of Land Management doesn't seem to have such a joie de vivre attitude these days.

The swim is just a goldmine of money for the Davis Aquatic Masters, who sponsor the swim. Going to their webpage I saw that they were taking a team trip to the Galapagos Islands. That's nice. One of my teams once went to Fentons.

Men and women were each arranged into two waves: 18-39 and 40+. Kids were in six more waves: boys/girls of three age groups -- 10-Under, 11-14, and 15-18.

And then there were the Wetsuit Weenies. They get their own wave.

Because of the sheer volume of people, swimmers were asked to arrive an hour early, which my husband always hears as two hours. Dragging his poor family up at the crack of dawn (I only enjoy that when I get paid to coach my 6 a.m. workout at Laney College), we set off on a breakfast-churning, winding Napa road.

In the free time I had, I saw dozens of swim pals and even found myself sitting next to the dad of a girl I coached in high school in 1987. Yikes, I even recognized him. Everyone looked like they were enjoying themselves and seemed to know what they were doing. Except for the Wetsuit Weenies. They were changing into their blubber suits and then looking around for another neoprene addict to zip them up. Hey guys, where's the BatCave??

My husband was in the third wave starting the two-mile race (men and women, but not kids, also had those same categories for a one-mile race which followed). After the fourth wave the Wetsuit Weenies went off. The lake was about 70 degrees, 95 percent of all attendees were normal, non-Weenies (even the 9-year-olds), and there was no carbon bike to leap aboard after the swim. What gives?

They were either training for a triathlon or just true, world-class Weenies, who probably sit with a little crocheted blanket on their laps when watching movies set in autumn. Even worse, after they get out of the water, they then have to find someone to unzip them (help me please sir, I can't get dressed or swim on my own . . .) Then they walk around with the top half of their wetsuit folded down looking like they've begun molting, or somebody scratched them with a coin to reveal the prize underneath.

Another thing that really bugged me was the fact that a local youth swim team brought a group of swimmers out to this event and then the coach SWAM ALONG with the kids (not even the 10-Unders, for cryin' out loud!!) so that they would feel comfortable. Hey, it's OPEN WATER swimming, not Follow The Leader. If you want to feel comfortable PRACTICE. Duh.

Everyone has to learn what to do when they swim and, assuming it's not some sort of event which involve parachutes or crocodiles, you should learn to figure it out for yourself. That's what LIFE IS. Duh again.

My daughter did great, 4th in the 11-12 age group behind a pair of twins that are turning 13 in a few days and her superstar pal. My husband finished in the top half of his age group, undoubtedly failing to crack the top 10 due to his lack of sleep.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Would I Still Like You Outside of Our Lane?

Most of my students at Laney College get in the same lane each day. At other (official) Masters programs, the swimmers are assigned to lanes depending on their 100 freestyle interval. At mine it's always a frantic reshuffling based on who:
  • stayed up too late doing homework/work/drinking
  • has/is soon to have a sick child
  • is/isn't breastfeeding (not everyone may qualify)
  • depended on someone to pick them up, who turned out to be a flake
  • doesn't like the set that day
  • set their alarm for "p.m." instead of "a.m." (If only I had a dollar for every time I heard that one!!!)

They greet each other before getting in, chat after getting out, and generally commiserate after the hard swims. Some socialize outside of the pool, sharing other hobbies and activities (huh? you need others?) and an occasional birthday celebration. We haven't had any marriages yet (of people who met in my class), but I've seen two breakups.

The first one was horrible, with the female trying to keep up a brave front (I'm okay if I don't look at him) and the male oblivious (well we hate each other, but I'm going to swim now because it works into my schedule.) The other was a little easier to live with, because the female just came every day with a heavy heart, and the male disappeared.

Swimming in a lane is like living and working with these people for an hour each day. Each lane has a pecking order, where some people are dominant. (My personal lane is pictured at right, with pecking order shown increasing from left to right.) Some lanes turn into little Stockholm Syndrome sites, where the hostages grow to love their captors. While this may also apply to the Coach/Athlete relationship, I'll save that for another day. Some people are just terrible lanemates, but their people get in with them day after day, perhaps thinking that this is just all there is.

The worst lanemate is someone who plows down the middle of the lane, endangering all who swim in the opposite direction. Lapping the middle-of-the-roader is just about impossible. They just don't get it, maybe due to some spacial dysfunction (that's generous of me!) or because they are just magnetically attracted to the line on the bottom of the pool. Calling their attention to this fact only serves to frustrate me. I get that look back in return like I'm Charlie Brown's teacher talking to the class: wuah, wuah, wuah.

Another irritating lanemate is someone who crowds the interval, leaving too soon. Then they either catch the person ahead, who deserved to be ahead of them, or grow to think they are faster than they really are because their time sounds impressive. Usually this just happens in my noon class, so morning folks read on.

My 6 a.m.ers have three lane problems:

  • (1) people who overestimate their speed and think that it won't be a problem if they do a different interval than the two other people in their same lane
  • (2) people who have one tragically comical stroke in a set of IMs, and their bad stroke is not the same as any of their lanemates' worst strokes. This results in three different lead changes within the lane, all in the space of a 100 IM
  • (3) people who don't like swimming with more than one other person in their lane, which is difficult on days when all the other lanes have four people and I have to pretend that I haven't noticed the still water in the south end of Lake Laney

And yet with all the dysfunction going on everyone keeps coming. There's no pool equivalent of road rage, nobody has gone po(ol)stal yet, and I like peeking into people's egos (psychiatrically speaking) and seeing who can take the pressure and who can't -- just in case we all get trapped in an elevator or something.

Fourteenth floor: millinary, fine jewelry, and lifelong fitness. All aboard!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


This was a license plate one of my teammates used to have, back in the day when I was fast. Aaron flew by most people, especially moi, because I hadn't figured out how to swim butterfly easily, even when I could break 2:00 in the 200 freestyle. Now my butterfly is easier -- still not fast, but easy
-- and of course he can still fly by me. So what has really changed in the grand scheme of things: nothing.

Butterfly is so hard for so many people,
but not so much for this guy (right). You may see more of him in the upcoming months. His website is conveniently divided into English and Chinese. As for the rest of you . . .

Woody Allen wrote so many funny lines, but one of my favorites is "I am two with nature." That's what most swimmers' butterfly looks like.

When I first started coaching, I was co-coaching a Masters swim team with my pal Janice. There was a guy, Steve, on the team who always substituted freestyle when I said butterfly. First I guessed that he didn't hear the instructions, so I repeated it. Next I figured that he didn't know how to do the stroke, so I offered to give him a few tips. But he told me that he just didn't want to swim it. When I asked why, he told me the funniest thing: "I just don't like the look on people's faces when they finish." And it wasn't even like he didn't want to work hard. He worked on freestyle sets, and was even fairly competitive. Whatever. Our coach-athlete relationship became a little less coach-y after that.

This week we had a great workout that featured hard freestyle alternating with six 25s of butterfly. Just enough butterfly to tire you out before the freestyle began. Then, when you finally made it through the freestyle, it was time for butterfly again. I love the devious sets. Everyone had that same look on their face that Steve was missing. It was beautiful.

Everyone is so nice to me when they're done with that set or one like it, it's like they've just been rescued from a well. What a great phenomena to have people say "thank you" after you've just caused them pain. I love my job.

So here's my latest complaint: sixth-grade English. Why is it, when someone's advanced they are forced to peer tutor? Just because you know something doesn't mean you know anything about teaching. That's why people have to get TEACHING credentials, for cryin' out loud. My sixth-grade daughter doesn't need to learn how someone else learns and to work with their strengths. The other sixth-grader doesn't need to hear from the geeky kid in the seat next door, who can barely control her eye-rolling muscles.

In swimming (where the world is pure, and life is good), if my daughter is faster than the other kids, she gets her own interval. She doesn't have to stop and look underwater at the kid in the next lane. Hello, we have a coach! Why can't someone in education challenge my daughter? Is it because they're afraid of stigmatizing her? If they gave her double the number of dorky vocabulary words, maybe, but what if in addition to the See Jane reader the rest of the class was using, the teacher could assign her something, you know, complicated -- and email her or get together for 10 minutes before school.

Not everyone who is a fast swimmer is a good coach. Not everyone who is smart is a good teacher. Not everyone who swims fast or is smart in school even likes teaching. Lucky I was one of those people who was a good observer, interested in the sport itself, and a deep thinker (HA! Two out of three!) Teaching is just about all I do; I run the household like a workout, too. First you hang this up, then put this here, then pick up that. DON'T TALK WHEN I'M TALKING! Yes, I know algebra is hard. IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE HARD. And that's just with my husband.

Oh well, my daughter can be challenged in the pool. So can all of us. And that guy pictured above. Swimming's the best.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Two Kinds of People in the World -- no, three . . . or maybe six

You'd think that people who wake up early to get to my workout at Laney College by 6 a.m. would be there for the exercise. You'd think that exercise would mean the same thing to most people. Well, no.

Exercise means several things to my Laney Gang. (Here's my chance to use my Masters Degree and use bullets!) See where you fit in!

  • Fat Burners/Muscle Toners -- they just swim back and forth and don't really care about improving technique. They listen to my technique tips like my daughter listens when I tell her that the way she flosses is just pathetic.
  • Triathletes -- just there for the freestyle, thank-you-very-much! Want to know the secret (double top secret) tip for making them faster. Suspicious of me that I don't give them that. Think I will if they keep coming.
  • Type A Competitors -- work hard every set, get there early, jump right in. Hates it when I stick slow/dumb person in their lane. Goes to meets, knows their times, can read the pace clock. Very important at their job. When lane crashes occur always other person's fault. Irritated when people ask questions because that means they will get 15 fewer yards in today.
  • Detail People -- could talk to me about their stroke for hours. Want me to watch them make adjustment, talk about it, make another adjustment, talk about it, then talk about how it all works together. Could probably just stay dry the entire hour talking, yet still think they made a huge breakthrough.
  • Formerly Competitive -- think they know swimming, because they swam in high school in the 70s. Stroke's different now, hello!!! Don't want to change stroke. Don't want to change hairstyle. Don't want to change radio station in car.
  • Not Morning People -- drag their pitiful butts into the pool each morning and think we're all talking too loud. Just want to get it over with because it's good for them. Wish I would appreciate what a sacrifice they made to come.
  • Don't Get It Folks (but won't quit because they paid $10 for the class) -- can't figure out why I keep picking on them. Why don't I just repeat the set so that they can hear it? Why am I always in such a hurry? Better yet, why don't I write it down? Other workouts just post it on a white board. At least then they can zone out and just swim some laps.
  • Fin Monsters -- really good with fins, in fact too good. Believes that they are really powerful kickers, but that skill is trapped deep inside and cannot come out in non-fin sets. Irritated with me that I cannot help them. What do you mean, I have to bend my knee -- you just said that I need to kick with my entire leg? Ankles can't work independently from feet; may also have trouble patting head and rubbing stomach. May be quite functional while running, etc. but doesn't appreciate my suggestion for rebreaking ankle and having it set in another position.
  • Always Out of Shape -- makes it to workout three times a month, usually on a test-set day or all Butterfly which further exacerbates the problem. Finally comes three days in a week, but is so tired at work that dozes off while welding, calculating load strengths, or matching blood types and then vows to sleep in for just a couple of weeks. Insists that this week will also stop smoking and drinking. Maybe weightlifting would help.
  • Just Part of My Day -- comes all the time, pays attention, knows what the set is, friendly with others in lane. Socializes outside of pool with others. My reason for living!!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Is the Pool Heated?

It's not like we're in Kazakhstan, with a mixture of semi-treated sewage and rainwater filling a concrete rectangle left over from a Soviet tank doing doughnuts. The NCAA rule book states that the water temperature must be between 79 and 81 degrees Fahrenheit for competition. So, that's what people set their pools to for practice. It's just the air temp that's a problem. It isn't even that cold. Check out my favorite Antarctica video:

That's cold.

I like coming home from coaching morning workout at Laney College and seeing the roofs of the houses covered with frost and the occasional chimney gaily spewing chunky, asthma-inducing particulate. When I drive in each morning everything is dark and I just see the empty streets.
Occasionally in my neighborhood I see a bathroom light on or the papermanboy, but not much action. If I leave four minutes early I also see my neighbor Ed, who drives his El Camino off to work while wearing his "Ed" shirt.

Since I work at Laney, I wonder if I can get a "Higher Ed" shirt?

I like leaving early, on those rare mornings when I don't have to fold laundry or put away the dishes. Then I get to stop at Starbucks in the Fruitvale neighborhood, selected because of its easy-on/easy-off access to the Nimitz freeway and not because I'm a corporate lackey. I was just saying that very thing to my friend as I was driving my Audi R8 to Bloomies to get a new Juicy bag when my iPhone went off.

When the temperature is not in the 30s, I wear my Laney jacket and everyone at Starbucks knows I'm coaching swimming. When I wear my double layer warm jacket I just look like I'm off for a day of Search and Rescue and no one admires my toughness any longer.

The crowd at 5:40 a.m. at Starbucks is entirely composed of tradespeople and law enforcement officers. Occasionally there is a woman who is in one of those categories, and sometimes there is someone dressed well -- off to a busy soul-less day at the office -- but I like the amazingly bilingual staff (how cool would it be to be that fluent) and embarrasingly enough, I like how they remember my order.

Then it's on to the pool, where it's always between 79 and 81. Yeah, I'm tough getting up that early to work outside. But my swimmer are even tougher. They don't get paid. I wish they could get extra fast because they come to the pool on days like this, but life doesn't work that way. I hope they know how -- each time they get out of their warm bed when the alarm goes off -- they are becoming stronger people. It fills me with pride to see how many people show up on the cold days. Thanks for warming my heart!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tri, Tri, Tri

There's a picture in my dad's bathroom about the Stages of Life. It shows a series of pictures of a male, first as a baby then young child, etc., etc. by decade until the man is tall and straight. Then he starts drooping, curling back down, leaning on a cane, etc. until he's got a long white beard and looks a little like he's missing his wizard hat from Harry Potter. Not sure why it's in the bathroom, actually, but by now it is kind of creepy-familiar.

I think there is some kind of sporting equivalent in life.

First there is the fascination for riding things, then the ball obsession, then in their Thirties everyone seems to be obsessed with Triathlons (more about this in a minute). In the 4os women are near-magnetically attracted to the treadmill (unless there is a Stair machine), while the guys retreat only to two machines in the weight room: bench press and rowing. In the 50s it turns into Stretch Class and then before you know it you're poofing a balloon around in the Rest Home.

Now one of the benefits of swimming is that you can do it exactly the same for all of your decades. I tell my students that the stroke is like the golf swing. You work on perfecting it all of your life. No one gets it right. We just hope that each year there is some new technological improvement in the lanelines or the swimsuit or maybe a rule change for the start or turn so that we can avoid the physiological 1% decline per year and at least stay the same. Well, I think about these things.

But people who don't grow up swimming like me, people who ride scooters as preschoolers, play Little League and CYO basketball, maybe swim in the summers, try High School track and take up jogging when they get their first real job -- they are the people who are ripe for Triathlons.

It helps if you don't have kids (or have a really cute one who doubles as a BabyGap model and enjoys catching big air as you power through your workout with the wee one in the $600 jogstroller) and have disposable income. Triathlon seems to be the ultimate physical challenge for all people who honeymoon in Fiji, drive expensive 2-door cars, and go to parties when it isn't even Christmas (!!).

New triathletes in their 30s are always two things: people who just meet the above criteria, or injured runners. The runners are so endorphin-addicted that they get in the pool to "stay in shape" and then figure out that there is a big Fill-In-Disease-Here Triathlon coming up in June and, what the hell they were going to buy a $3000 bike anyway. Pretty soon they look like her (right) when they go out for a quart of milk.

They hate doing anything but freestyle (why are you wasting my time!), hate drills (let's get going!), hate kicking (I run, you know!), hate sprinting (it's a MILE, you moron) and hate using fins (we can't use fins in the lake). All of those things are exactly what the triathlete needs for their stroke, of course, but getting them to understand that is tough.

So it's my job to teach everyone, and I do, but if you're going to do a triathlon, at least make it a reasonable combination of sports. I think that the current ratio of about a hour swim, four-hour bike ride, two-hour run (give or take 10 hours each way) for the Ironman length and the same ratio for the Olympic distance is entirely LAME.

If you want to see well-rounded people why don't you do a two-hour swim, run and bike. Make the Olympic length a one-hour swim/bike/run. This new Marcia Triathlon would be completely reasonable and make your strength be in having no weaknesses.

Now if you're a lousy swimmer and swim 50% slower than the rest (imagine driving at 30 mph on the freeway, while everyone is driving 60), you are behind all of 15 minutes as you get on your bike. Then you still have three hours to make it up. If you were behind 50% on your bike you'd only have to run the 10K in minus 20 minutes. Half-speed in swimming is nothing in these Disease Weekend Triathlons. In the pro events everything matters, but for most of the people out there -- no.
Remember you heard it here first: the Marcia Triathlon. No disease required.