Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Palmetto Thanksgiving Turkey Invite

As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, I don’t write about my own personal swimming experiences a lot. I am passionate about all levels of swimming, but here I like to focus on the top tier of competition and the build-up to next summer’s Olympics. Today, with not much news coming out of the swimming world right now, I am changing gears to discuss a meet I competed in last weekend, the Palmetto Thanksgiving Turkey Invite at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC. I came home with a mixed bag of results and some fond memories, including meeting Gamecock star Michael Flach, who is redshirting to train for Olympic Trials. However, five moments stood out as truly amazing.

First, I want to give some context on my swimming career. I swim for the newly-formed LTP Racing Club in Charleston, SC, and I specialize in mid-distance free and backstroke. I have been dropping time consistently for years, but I feel like I had a breakout at my high school State meet two months ago, where I swam 4:57.11 to cut almost 15 seconds off my 500 best time. Last year, I won that race in a 5:11, defeating an extremely talented teammate who was sick at the time. This year, I took a surprising lead at the 100 and held it through the 450, but I ended up second as both my teammate and I broke the previous state record. Another big moment came this summer at my Long Course State Championships, when I made consolation finals in both backstroke races, the first time I had ever earned a second swim at State meet.

Palmetto used an interesting format for a three-day meet, with finals on Saturday only. With my 4:57, I had been seeded into the top heat of the 500 (which would swim with finals), and I also qualified for the A-final in the 100 back. I am a pretty big swim geek (obviously), and I have watched a lot of meets where top athletes get to walk out with music for their championship finals. Never have I gotten such an experience. That is, never until this weekend. When Palmetto’s coach told me that I would get to walk out, I literally went nuts. To use a cliché expression, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. Definitely not behavior that one would normally associate with a 17 year old senior in high school, but for someone who has thus far had a relatively modest career in the pool, it meant a lot to walk out for those finals.

Like with most committed swimmers, I try to be at as many practices as possible, but that doesn’t always pan out. I missed at least a day or two of club practice per week during high school season, and I occasionally have school commitments that don’t allow me to swim. One teammate, however, has literally had perfect attendance the last four months since August 1, when we started back to practice following a week break after our Long Course State Championships. This particular teammate is not the most talented, but he works hard every day, and he is chopping huge chunks in practice and meets. He just aged up to the 13-14 age group, and he did not yet have any State qualifying times when we left for Columbia.

He swam the 1000 free on Friday night, and I was at the end of his lane counting for him and watching splits come up on the scoreboard. I checked the State cut just before the race, and I saw 11:36.49. As the race progressed, he was holding consistent and fast splits, 34-mid to 35-flat per 50, but as he turned for his last 50, I thought he would be just a bit shy of the cut. However, he came home in 32.16 for a final time of 11:36.17. At that point, I screamed so loud that my voice was hoarse for the next couple days. Simply put, that was hard work paying off, and I know how much he deserved that.

Another of my teammates has had a rough road the past few months. She struggled during high school season to do get to a lot of club practices, and she did not drop time in any of her events at a meet two weeks ago in Greenville, SC. Meanwhile, she was struggling outside of the pool and contemplated a break from swimming. At this meet, she had swum some alright races along with others she didn’t want to remember. On Sunday, she swam the 200 free first. From our team’s seating area, I was getting ready for my 200 and watching the scoreboard. I saw her splits, and it was obvious that she was going to go a best time. But she didn’t cut off a couple tenths or even a second. 4.48 seconds. I ran over to the end of the pool, and she had a huge smile from ear-to-ear and gave me a big hug. She no longer has doubts about swimming.

I have two more favorite moments from this weekend, and both involve a friend from Columbia that I met last year through high school swimming. When I won the 500 then, he finished third in 5:13.82. He then played basketball during short course season, spending less time in the water and swimming at only one meet. During long course, he kept coming up short of State qualifying times, but he assumed that he would be able to use a qualifying time for the 1500 before realizing just two weeks before that the cut had expired. He did not swim at Long Course State, and he had a rough high school season as well, finishing third again in the 500 but going as slow as 5:15.

He also swam at the meet this weekend, and, as he was not in my heat for the 500, I watched. As always, he took the race out hard, and I kept a close eye on his splits. His best time was still that 5:13.82 from high school State more than a year earlier. As he was about to finish, I ran behind his lane, watching the scoreboard closely. His time: 5:13.75. A year of struggling and forced patience finally behind, he finally cleared the barrier of going a best time in the 500 free, and I couldn’t have been happier for him. He still does not have his State cut, but he is tapering for a meet in Greensboro next month, and I’m confident he will get it there.

The final event of the meet was the 400 IM, and this same friend and I were both up to swim. Before that, I had only swum one 400 IM, when I went 4:51 last month. The State cut was a 4:47.99, and, despite throwing away my chance at a cut in the 200 free minutes before, I was very confident I could get down to that mark. My friend, meanwhile, was going for his first State cut in more than two years. I swam first, and he joined my teammates in rooting hard for me. I touched the wall in 4:45.15 and pumped my fists. I then dealt with a mob of excited teammates and my friend attacking me.

Two heats later, my friend was on the blocks. Having not swum this race short course in years, he easily disposed of his competitors, and I had my eyes glued to the scoreboard. He and I are at about the same level in butterfly and freestyle, and I am faster in backstroke, but I am truly awful at breaststroke, and he is far better. He took the race out fast and outsplit me on every 50 for the first 300. Usually, I don’t like losing to him, but I was so excited. He touched in 4:40.09, and I was congratulating him before he could look at the scoreboard. He will be at State meet, and that moment was just awesome.

Obviously, for some people, these moments from a small swim meet would seem insignificant, and even in the grand scheme of this season, they probably are. However, swimming for me is about more than personal improvement or goals; rather, I live for those memories of watching my friends go best times and get their first State cuts and overcome their frustrations. Each season in swimming is a journey, and those moments are little reminders interspliced throughout months of training that make everything worth it. I love swimming, and I love when other people love swimming too.

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