It's a well know fact that swim meets are long, uncomfortable, and boring. For most people.
Not for "swim parents." See, while a swim meet LOOKs like just one race after another, with hundreds of kids who all look alike, there is actually a lot more to it than that, if you know the swimmers, and all the drama.
Not "drama" in a bad way, drama in the Wide World of Sports way. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. What may LOOK like eight kids swimming the same stroke across the pool at the same time is really eight different stories playing out, sometimes over the course of a season, just the 3 days of the meet, or only that one swim, right there.
We swim parents spend the 3 days doing the zombie shuffle around the stadium. Must. Keep. Blood. Moving. We are like leaves drifting in an aimless current, occasionally gathering in an eddy to exchange information. "How's Nathan swimming? Did you see Kiley get the meet record? Wasn't that race with Carly and Lauren amazing!? Did Stephen qualify for TAGS?" We are like one, big, extended family and we love to celebrate the achievements of everyone else's kids.
To give you a feel for the ups and downs of a meet, here is how Aidan's story played out over three days. You will see why I don't mind watching him swim.
Aidan recently turned 15, and it's time to start competing against "men." No more being ranked by how old you are, either you qualify to swim based on time (not age), or not. At this point in his swimming, the Big Goal for the end of the season is to qualify for a Sectional meet, which is about 1/12th of the country. (There are 4 zones, and each zone is divided into 3 sections. We are in the western section of the southern zone) Aidan was close to achieving a few qualifying times for Sectionals, so that was his primary goal for this meet. There are 2 levels of qualifying times, called "hard cuts" and "soft cuts." You have to have at least one hard cut to qualify, and each hard cut earns you the right to swim two additional events as long as you have the soft cut.
This meet was run in what is called a championship format. Meaning there are preliminary heats in each event in the morning, and if you finish in the top 16, you come back at night and swim it again in finals. This format pits the very fastest kids against each other, and they all swim just a little bit better in these fastest heats at night.
Swimmer rankings are released a few days in advance of the meet, so you can get an idea of where you fit in the overall scheme of things and predict whether or not you will qualify for evening finals.
Aidan's main focus for Friday was the 200 IM. He was ranked 57th among the 95 entrants with ages 15-27.
He had a GREAT swim - and got a "soft cut" for Sectionals. Since he moved up so much in the rankings, he had one more opportunity to get the "hard cut."
Here is a video of his swim. I really like the 200 IM because you get to see all four strokes, but it only takes about 2 minutes, unlike the long slog of the 400 IM.
Since I hadn't expected him to make finals, we had no hotel room. I found a covered parking garage at a church and we sat in the car for four hours with the AC running. Aidan slept, and I monitored the engine temperature, occasionally going for drives to keep the temperature down.
Back to the pool for finals. The good news is, he killed it again and dropped more time and wound up being ranked 12th overall. The bad news is, he didn't quite get the hard cut.
Meet the Crabby Boy in the lobby when the meet is over. "Great swim!" I enthused. He glared at me. Rolled his eyes. "Dood! You went a 2:20!! That's AWESOME!" I insisted. He growled at me. "I don't care. That's like a consolation prize. I wanted to go a 2:19."
Alrighty then. It's gonna be a long ride home.
Up at 5am to make the hour drive to the swim meet. This time, we packed a change of clothes. Just in case. The main focus of the day is the 200 back, and he is ranked 21st. He's one second off the soft cut and four seconds off the hard cut. He is wearing an expensive "technical suit" and his legs are freshly shaved. He is ready.
He didn't just get the soft cut - he killed it (again) and got the hard cut. He made his goal in prelims. Then he swam a solid 100 free and broke a minute, but that event is dominated by guys who have several inches and fifty pounds on Aidan, (we call them Zoo Animals), so a good time drop is the only prize. He also swam the 400 IM.
So, back to the meet for finals, and since he lacked a clear goal, he did not swim as fast as he is capable. Sort of a let-down after having such a great day. But he finished 8th overall, which is a nice bump from being ranked 21st! My pride in him is no consolation for him though. He felt like tonight's race was pointless, and hated that he didn't do his best.
Sunday dawns, and his last event of the meet is the 100 back. That is his best event. He is tired. Worn down to a nub. He also has to start the meet with the 200 breast. Any 200 really takes a lot out of you. He swam pretty well, but made a mistake on his pull-out and was disqualified. That takes the wind out of your sails and he still had to wrap his mind around trying to get a hard cut in the 100 back. He told me when I dropped him off that morning, "Mom, if I make the hard cut in prelims, I am NOT staying to swim it again at night." I get that. But that is a conversation he must have with his coach, and not an argument that is worth having at this moment.
I can tell by his posture that he is feeling defeated and has lost his fire. He swims the 100 back and gives it absolutely everything he has to give. He gets a soft cut. Not the hard cut. Ugh. He wants to be done, and he's not. He has to do it again. I stand in the back of the stadium watching his every move. Trying to discern what his coach is telling him, whether or not he has enough left to make hanging around for finals even worth it. He hits the cool down pool. That is a good sign, if you mean to swim again, you MUST cool down after every race or your muscles seize up. He packs up his things in a desolutory manner. I am waiting to see if he folds up his chair, which means he does not intend to return. The chair stays.
I meet him in the lobby. He has a face like thunder. This is going to be a long afternoon. "Food or sleep?" I ask. "Food. Then sleep." Off to iHop (for the 3rd time this weekend) where he wolfs down his usual in silence. I keep my mouth shut. Back to the car and the covered lot by the church, he has 2 hours to sleep.
Back to the pool, I have done my best to refrain from saying anything. "Dig deep, buddy" I say as he exits the car. "Swim it like it's 105 meters!" hoping to convey the message that he must not run out of steam in the last 5 meters like he's prone to do when he's tired. He glares at me. "I don't even know why I'm doing this," he mutters as he slams the door extra hard.
I stand in the back of the stadium watching his warmup like a hawk. He talks with his coaches. Do they know? Do they know how utterly defeated he is? My heart is breaking for him and I want to rescue him. I want to go down on deck and tell the coaches that I am scratching him out of this farce. I want to put this behind us and take him home. I don't want him to have to fail. But I am not raising a quitter. I go back to my chair and try not to think about it.
It's a long wait. 3 1/2 hours from the time he had to report for warmups to when his event starts. I am kicking myself for not realizing this and getting permission from the coaches to roll in late. Coulda, shoulda, woulda. Bad Swim Mommy.
Finally. The Men's 100 back final. I don't want to watch. But here it is. Can he do it?
What I missed on the video is once he got out of the water and made his way over to see his coaches, there were a whole bunch of swimmers waiting to congratulate him. The swim parents all around me in the stands were as on edge about it as I was, and they were equally elated over what Aidan did. I am so grateful that Aidan is surrounded with so many supportive friends. People who "get" the "drama" of it all and understand the difference a few one-hundredths of a second can make to a dedicated swimmer.
Mostly, I am grateful for the lesson that Aidan learned. He now knows that even when he doesn't think he has it in him, if he digs deep enough, he really does.
Aidan's story wasn't the only one at the meet though. There were so many kids who did amazing things, who dug deep, who outswam themselves. I love knowing these amazing kids and the excitement of watching them achieve their goals. This is why swim meets aren't boring.
I meet him in the lobby. I want so bad to wrap him in a bear hug and plant a big sloppy kiss on his cheek. "Who are you and what have you done with that crabby kid I dropped off here this afternoon?" I ask instead. "Mom!" he says, "Did you SEE Lauren swim the 50 free? That was AMAZING!" he exclaims, and goes on to gush about all the accomplishments of his swimming family.
Suddenly, the drive home looks pretty promising.