Archive for the ‘swimming’ Category

Swimming to Maryland

February 10th, 2011 No comments

…narratively speaking, that’s what today’s 365gay column does. I connect a flap over a Letter to the Editor of SWIMMER Magazine to the push for religious exemptions to the marriage equality bill being considered in Maryland.

How? Read the thing.

Three Stories About Swimming

April 3rd, 2010 No comments

I.     Nerves

An article in last Sunday’s Times discussed the paralyzing fear that afflicts some swimmers on the biggest stages, and the techniques used to combat it. The great Federica Pellegrini of Italy is so scared of the 400 meter freestyle, despite holding the world record in the event, that she often can’t perform well in it. Katie Hoff, a versatile American swimmer, was so overcome by nerves at her Olympic debut in 2004 that she practically drowned. Just yesterday, Aaron Peirsol, who wins backstroke events like Roger Federer wins tennis tournaments, failed to make the final at the 100 meter distance.

I can relate. Much further down the swimming food chain, I often choked in the biggest moments when some wrinkle was thrown at me. The worst of it was the final big event of my college career, the 200 butterfly — supposedly my best event — at our conference championship. Stricken with flu a couple of weeks before the meet, I lost confidence, tightened up, and failed to advance to the final. No chance at redemption. It wasn’t until I started masters swimming that I figured out how to harness all of that nervous energy; at age 30, I swam what was for me the perfect race, achieving a time I’d never before reached. The 200 fly never felt so easy.

Michael Phelps, of course, long ago figured out how to deal with all of this. The Times story tells of how his mother would command him to relax different parts of his body the night before a meet, and how he visualizes his races and the outcome he wants, no matter the obstacle. I’d say he’s been successful. But not even Superman can overcome…

II.     Supersuits and the Corporate Compromise to Competition

Phelps just suffered his first loss in a major international competition since 2005, getting (relatively) clobbered by the previously unknown Paul Biedermann of Germany in the 200 freestyle. The German, who’d previously taken down the legendary Ian Thorpe’s (thought-untouchable) record in the 400 meter freestyle, frankly conceded that his success in both events was attributable to his swim suit, saying that the suits were “destroying a little bit the sport.” In the 400, he guessed that the suit shaved a full two seconds off his time, an eternity in swimming terms.

FINA (a French acronym), the governing body for international swimming, has finally instituted a ban against these suits that turn man into superman, woman into wonderwoman; but it doesn’t go into effect until next year. Until then, expect the parade of soon-to-be-discredited (but not to be stricken!) record-breaking to continue. This Times article is a good summary, and includes a statement by Phelps’s coach that his star won’t swim any more international meets until the playing field is leveled.

Wait! Why wasn’t Phelps wearing one of these hyper-speedy suits, you’re wondering? His suit, the Speedo LZR, is so 2008. Beiderman’s suit is from the next generation; many polyurethanes had to die to create his rubbery boat. But Phelps wouldn’t — or couldn’t—  wear it, because Speedo is his sponsor. So Phelps plods along in a suit that might as well be from the 1920’s, while his less financially successful (and less contractually committed) opponents strap rockets to their backs. It’s not too cynical to ask whether Phelps’ coach, whom I don’t recall complaining about the then-fastest suit his charge was wearing last yeaer, would be as outraged were the swimmer not boxed into a financial corner.

Corporate sponsorship has changed swimming in good ways, most notably by providing swimmers with an income source that allows the continuation of careers that once ended after college.  But now the flip side of allowing swimmers to cash in on their notoriety and corporate connection is clear: The competition has been compromised. Another problem comes into view when, say, a global recession causes sponsorships to shrivel up. Then, even world-class swimmers may find themselves out of the market. Some kind of organizational subsidy by FINA or national swimming organizations seems like a good solution here, but these issues are but two examples of what happens when the suits are effectively running sports.

III.     Not Wearing $1,000 Swim Suits

Today, both of my four-year-old daughters swam across the pool for the first time. Their shrieks of happiness will sustain me for at least a week.

This post was originally published on July 28, 2009. Since then, FINA has changed the rules on these high-tech suits; back to basics it will be.

Categories: recession, swimming Tags:

A Swimming Story for the DADT Repeal Controversy

March 28th, 2010 1 comment

When President Bill Clinton tried to lift the ban on gays in the military, top brass — including Colin Powell, who has since had a change of heart — defied their Commander in Chief, and argued vociferously and successfully against the move. The resulting compromise, of course, was the DADT policy that may very soon be lifted. According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the policy will be implemented more humanely (principally by making it much harder for anyone to be “outed” by third-party statements), in preparation for its demise within the next year or so.

But not all of the military are singing from the choir book yet. Gates himself now says that he doesn’t favor repeal before a study into the possible consequences has concluded, and others have gone further. Early this month, a high-ranking general (Mixon) urged service members to fight back against the repeal. He was sharply rebuked, but the counter-push has continued.

Just yesterday, CNN reported that the top Marine commander wants separate rooms for straight and gay soldiers if DADT is repealed. From this article, I learned that the Marines, unlike other branches of the military, house soldiers two-to-a-room. Marine Commandant James Conway doesn’t want straight soldiers to be uncomfortable by having to share a room with a gay soldier.

Let’s be honest here: There doubtless would be Marines made uncomfortable by this unique situation. This discomfort shouldn’t be brushed aside just because it is literally homophobia. What’s needed is preparation through education, a clear and enforceable policy about inappropriate behavior, and perhaps a transition period. Ah, but what would such a transition look like? Should straight soldiers be able to refuse a gay roommate? For any reason, or for no reason at all? For religious reasons? There should be a way to get through this change without having to rework all or some of the rooms into singles.

I’m reminded of a friend on the mostly gay and lesbian Masters swim team that I belong to (although I’m not there so much these days). Simone was from Italy (Sicily, to be precise) and had come to the U.S. to study medicine. He was — and is to this day — straight. Since we often swam in the same lane, we became well-acquainted over the first couple of months he was there. And then, somehow, we started a series of email exchanges about how he’d felt when he first joined the team. Paraphrasing now from these more than ten-year-old emails, this is what I recall:

When he first came to Philadelphia looking for a place to swim, he was pleased to learn of our swim team, which worked out so close by. But almost immediately thereafter, he discovered that the team was predominantly gay, and therefore decided he couldn’t join. So he tried working out on his own for awhile, but as many swimmers will tell you, that gets old after awhile. So finally, after a few months, his need for people to swim with overcame his homophobia (again using the term here in the literal sense), and he showed up.

He told me that back home gays were still completely in the closet (I’d concur from my trip to the southern part of Italy a few years earlier), and to the extent the subject was discussed at all, it was as “a bad thing.” So he didn’t know anything, and was afraid to find out. I’d say it took him only a couple of weeks of swimming with us before he loosened up. He no longer bolted from the pool to the locker room without showering. He started to enjoy the endless, between-sets banter that are de rigueur for swimmers (the only way to deal with the pain!). Before long, he started hanging out with us after practice. And I’ll never forget the time that, during the hour swim (an event that must cease to exist), we swam next to each other for about 1,000 yards, matching stroke for stroke.1

In short, Simone had become a team member.

Swimming isn’t the military, of course. Yet there are some similarities. The tasks that call both groups together are challenging, often exhausting. Both work in close proximity, and have occasion to see others’ naked bodies. And I like to think that, with the proper attitude and leadership, the military could figure out how to make their team work once DADT is repealed. It seems to be working fine in every other country that has given it a chance. 

  1. Oh, did I mention that I managed to keep up with his freestyle while I was doing the backstroke? But that’s not important….

The Mesh of the Edmund Fitzgerald (or, Substitutiary Locomotion)

March 15th, 2009 No comments

After a few short weeks out of the swimming pool (paradoxically, when in Florida on vacation I found time for everything but swimming), I received a painful reminder of why I don’t like to stop.

A couple of days ago, I  ventured to my local sports club for a pre-work training session.  Scrounging through my bag, I found two suits in various unwearable (wet, mildewy, angry) states, several faded caps, and a barely functional pair of goggles. (This bag check is compelling stuff, isn’t it?) Then I stumbled upon my arch-enemy: The Black Mesh Suit. This swim suit is designed for in-shape swimmers who want some extra “drag” to make them pull harder, work more to maintain body position, etc. At this stage in my career, however, the only “drag” I can tolerate is Charles Busch.

In I went. The pool is maintained at a balmy 85º, a temperature better suited for lab experiments than a swim workout. Yet I was an experiment of sorts: How far can a middle-age, somewhat out-of-shape man swim, competently, in a cruel suit? Answer: Not so very far. Before long, I began taking on bilge water, as the suit obligingly accommodated gallons of liquid as I sank. At 7 pm, a main hatchway gave in. I said: “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.”

Why, oh why, don’t I just break down and pour many hundreds of dollars into one of those supersuits that all of the Olympians (and now even high schoolers) are wearing? A recent rule prohibits the suits from covering certain parts of the bodies (the eyelashes), but they apparently are the technological equivalent of “substitutiary locomotion,” the eldritch mode of movement more or less mastered by the inexplicably immortal Angela Lansbury in “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” (I watched this — all of it, alas — with my kids recently, immune to one’s intermittent complaints.) Like the suits of armor animated by Miss Price in that cinematic triumph, these swim suits do the swimming, while the swimmer need only make a token demonstration of the contested stroke, leaving one arm free for cocktails. (Of course, one could charge admission to watch many “masters level” (read: old) swimmers getting in and out of these suits. Imagine putting a sausage back into its casing and you’ll have a picture. Just not a pretty one.)

Owing to a helpful bout of amnesia, the next day I swam again — this time with the Philadelphia FINS, my masters swim team. And here I was lucky enough to realize why it is I still do this. After the workout, I overheard a conversation between a swimmer who must have been in his 70s and a younger guy. The older gentlemen was showing the younger one photos from many years ago, taken in Italy, on the shore of the Adriatic Sea. It turns out that the five people in the photo (four young men and one woman) comprised a relay team that accomplished a 100 km ocean race. This older guy was on the far left of the photo, 18 years old at the time.

Seeing this photo was somehow inspiring. Here we are, likely more than 50 years later, and this guy is still swimming for fitness. Bring on the bilge water, I say.

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