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Articles by Dartes Swimmers Past and Present

Every now and again, someone pops up out of the deep end and writes an article for the website. Sometimes these are former Dartes swimmers with happy memories to share. Often they're current members with something special or interesting to shout about. Either way, if it's interesting and in some way connected to Dartes or Doncaster Swimming, we'll probably publish it.

Here's an article from a source unrelated to Doncaster Swimming, but we thought you'd like it anyway.

The Journey of the Swimmer -- Laurin Weisenthal


Many thanks to Larry and daughter Laurin for posting this essay to Rec.Sport.Swimming and allowing it to be duplicated here, giving a peek into the life of a dedicated American swimmer.

"The philosophy is simple; to achieve, you must work. You must work very hard."
- Erika Salumae, 1992 Olympic Sprint Cycling Champion

The Journey of the Swimmer

The time is five o'clock A.M. The sky ripples in a deep, velvety black as I race across the pool deck, tugging my unruly hair into a latex swim cap. The frigid wind bites into my nearly bare body; the icy deck numbs my toes as I adjust my goggles over weary eyes. I glance about, feeling the warmth of comradeship as my eyes light on the four others who have made the effort this morning. With a deep sigh of resignation, my body launches into an arch, convulsing slightly at the initial shock of the crisp, eerie blue water. Forced awake, I automatically begin the powerful strokes of my warm-up, preparing myself for the first of the day's two training sessions that will test the physical strength and mental tenacity of each athlete who dares make the attempt.

Day in and day out it is the same routine; if you want to be great, if you one day want to be ranked among the few who can call themselves the best, you must maintain a lifestyle that nears insanity. Commuting time not included, swim training eats up anywhere from 20 to 24 hours of your week, possibly more, depending on the coach. Not even illness, weather, or holidays are allowed to interfere with your training schedule: unless you are vomiting or feverish you drag your protesting body to practice; unless lightning threatens your life you endure whatever nature hurls in your way; if something as inconsiderate as Christmas causes you to take a day off, you make up the training you missed, perhaps by adding another round of doubles to your week.

Athletes vying for the coveted label of 'the best' all face grim circumstances and sacrifice. The unfortunate high school student has a structured school schedule to contend with, translated into required school hours and nightly class work. Life becomes a fearful experience of day to day survival: directly after school comes practice, so homework isn't started until 7:30 at night. If this sounds like a simple inconvenience, the factor of morning practice has been forgotten. Swimmers rise for practice anywhere between 4:00 and 4:30 in the silent darkness of early morning. They are lucky to snatch five hours of sleep on the eve of a double practice day. The other days they cannot make up the sleep they have lost because they must finish the homework they couldn't complete the night before. There is always a Saturday morning practice as well, so the only time a swimmer obtains a decent amount of sleep is Saturday night.

Training itself is rigorous and painful, both on the body and on the mind. It involves a demanding combination of dryland exercises and two hours of pool time per training session. People have hinted swimming to be a boring sport, swimming -- up and back along a black line -- for all eternity. These critics cannot be any more wrong.

Swimming requires more thought and focus than many of the common sports others play. True, you don't contend with a ball, nor do you need to devise strategies and plays involving other people. But what makes it so difficult is the overwhelming emphasis on technique: forcing your body to move in just the perfect way to minimize resistance in the water and maximize the power of your stroke. There are four different strokes in swimming, and for each stroke you must consider a multitude of tiny factors: where is your hand entering the water? how is your body positioned? are your elbows bent enough on the catch? are they bent too much? are you over-reaching? are you dragging your hips? are you rotating enough? and so many more. Resistance through water is a factor that is much more significant than resistance through air, and any little error can add tenths that build up over the course of a race. You must feel where your body is in relationship to the water, and there is always, always something you are doing incorrectly. Swimming becomes an intricate dance of perfecting one thing and discovering another that is flawed. Even the best in the world, the Olympians and world record holders, are forever looking for minute adjustments in their technique to drop mere hundredths from their times.

This quest for perfection involves endless repetition of unimaginable drills to discover the right niche for each athlete. You must always be thinking about what you are doing, feeling each element, to detect the flaws. At the same time you must be thinking about starts, turns, finishes, pacing, and racing. You must be smart to be a swimmer.

Then you must take what you feel in the drills and apply it to the actual sets.

Coaches develop sets that are tailored to match the swimmer and the swimmer's needs. The sprint freestyler, for example, does not do the same workout as the distance IMer. The breastroker does not do the same workout as the butterflyer, who does not do the same workout as the distance freestyler, and so on. But no matter which group you fit into, sets are devised to be arduous affairs. You must push yourself to your limit, and then push past that, over and over again, in every training session you face.

You must always force yourself on, performing whatever your coach tells you to do. You never pause to consider disobeying: if he says to swim faster, you swim faster. The response is automatic; you listen, you doggedly nod, and you launch yourself off the wall, hurling your will into the set. Swimmers suffer some of the most pain imaginable, for their whole body is consistently subjected to the wrath of the pool. After some training sessions your body is so beat up that you walk into your living room and drop dead on the floor. No muscle group escapes use in swimming. You tighten up in pain, force your way through sheer physical exhaustion; yet the dedicated punch through the breaking point and continue on, knowing that this is what it takes to be the best.

At times you work so hard that you simply become numb to the pain; you are aware that you can barely lift your protesting arms out of the water, and that your legs feel like solid granite, but you no longer detect your screaming body. Few ever reach this point; they begin to feel the rising surge of pain and back off, afraid. Hence the mental toughness and desire come into play, for you must defeat the mind games you begin to play with yourself. You cannot ponder whether you can go on; you must decide to go on, and if you do, you discover the beautiful, liberating feeling of realization that you can do anything.

Swimming is a cruel sport. You can train with all your heart and soul for a year and, just before the important meet, fall ill. Or at that one meet you can have a single poor performance due to a large amount of details that could go wrong. Or you can get a devastating injury, the most common being one to the shoulder. To come back from injury is a difficult journey in itself, and one that defines a person's character. Then there is the unfairness of the sport: the hardest workers and most deserving are not always the ones that reap the glory. Talent is just as great a factor in swimming as it is in anything else, and those that have it do not always realize the potency of their gift. An athlete may give her life to swimming and still never be as great as another, born with the natural gift, who gives only 70% to the sport. Swimming can give the highest pinnacle of joy and elation in success, but it can also bestow the most crushing misery and devastation in failure. Both are decided by mere seconds or less.

So why do you do it? friends ask me. Why do you go through all that? Are you crazy or something? Maybe I am. But they don't understand, they can't understand swimming in the way that I do. I do it because I love it, more than anything the world can offer. Even in the middle of the most painful training sessions, performed on little sleep, with my body begging for relief, I am content to be where I am. I have been through the darkest hours of the anger and frustration of injury, wondering desperately if I would ever return to the pool. I have been broken down by the demands of the sport to be built back up again. I have cried in disappointment and doubt when I failed to perform as well as I expected to after months of the above described. Yet always am I drawn back to the glittering, blue water, ready to face another day.

I love swimming for what it is, a sport that represents all that is right in athletics. There are no judges to determine whether you are a superior athlete than the next girl. No coach can make a call as to where you will play, how much you will play, and how important you are to a team. The person to get their hand on the wall the fastest is the winner, whether you like that person or not. The clock does not lie.

To many, swimming is just another sport, or a fun activity. Yet only those on the inside of the swimming world really understand what this sport is about. I love the people involved in swimming, for we all know what we go through, in the pool and out. Even those who aren't willing to push themselves as far as others have an appreciation and give their admiration and respect to those who do. We are always immediate friends because of the bonds we share; because we know what it is to be consumed by a sport that makes us whole, and to want something so badly that we will do whatever it takes to get there. And that feeling of glory, that feeling of performing excellently after everything has gone right, is the most beautiful, indescribable feeling in human experience. No matter how rare, that is what we live for, and I could never give it up.