Every time I touched the wall, I looked up to check my time. The spinning red hand of the clock revealed how long it had taken since I began whatever swim I had started, however many seconds—or minutes—ago. We did two things at practice: we threw yards and meters at our bodies and practiced touching the wall. Whether it was a grueling set of 20×100 yard swims on a 65-second interval to wrap up a workout or the inane 3×1500 meter swims with 30 seconds between each as a warm-up (Imagine doing that at 6 o’clock in the morning on an already warm summer day, in a pool with only thin nylon ropes to separate the lanes), whenever you finished, you jammed into the wall. You lifted your head from the water to see the clock. How fast did I go? How much time until the next swim begins?
I was not a world-class swimmer. When I was little, I tended to sink rather than proceed at pace. I wore a Styrofoam bubble on my back. There were lessons. My parents took me to Red Cross run classes in a lake near our home in Paoli. I flailed, resisting the head turn required for a proper crawl. Still, I loved the water and turned blue when my parents took us to Jones Beach when we visited their parents. Who would want to leave the churn and rush of waves? We joined local pools and passed our deep-end tests, treading water for an absurd amount of time under the watchful eye of a lifeguard. Once passed, my mother would drop us off while she shopped or played tennis at the Great Valley Country Club. Swim teams only started when I was 11.
In my sophomore year of high school, I was a fair Junior Varsity swimmer. The Hill School had a nationally ranked independent school team, and I was far from fast enough for that. I was only 4 years removed from goggle-less practices in the insidiously warm indoor pool at the Phoenixville Y. I came home bleary-eyed and teary. As far as other sports, I had been an indifferent Little League baseball player—more interested in the planes in the sky than balls hit in my direction. Because I was tall early, my father—a scholarship athlete at Niagara in the 40s—signed me up for basketball. It did not take. I enjoyed gymnastics: the rings and parallel bars carried me a little out of gravity’s grasp. You had to play a sport each afternoon, fall, winter, and spring at my high school. In my first year, I opted for soccer, swimming, and golf.
The 3500 yards that the JV team swam between 3-4 in the afternoon were as many yards as I had ever swum. Fred Borger was the JV coach and threw easily attainable sets at us: ten 100s at 1:45, then 1:30 as we improved. I started off swimming the 500 yard freestyle at meets. My early times were over seven minutes. I ended my first season at 5:55. My 100 breaststroke was north of 1:20, which rarely merited placement in one of the three lanes for meets. During my second year, after spending the fall playing water polo (a ploy to get fall training in for the varsity), my 500 time dropped to 5:20, and my 100 breast hovered at 1:15. I knew if I wanted to improve, I would need to change something.
As a sidebar, I was not happy at my school, an all-boys bastion against, what? a fear of falling? I spent the spring of my sophomore year stoned and looking for a new school for the following year. I crept out after curfew and brought pizza for my dorm mates. I never studied—my memory for most things kept my grades well above water. This was the year that ditched my longstanding boyhood aspiration: to attend the Naval Academy. I wanted a more diverse, less dick-driven environment. After all, how could you read Catcher in the Rye and not feel as if you wanted to turn away?
A friend on the Varsity swim team shared a flier from a swim camp/AAU team in Iowa. Glen Patton was building the program at the University of Iowa and was contacting good young swimmers like my friend as a way of recruitment. I applied to Swimming School and was delighted to be accepted. If I wasn’t going to go anywhere else, at least I could be a better swimmer.
At Iowa, we had three practices a day, totaling as many as seven hours in the pool. I had never swum more than one hour on any day and rarely more than 4000 yards. We swam between 20,000 and 28,000 meters every day. The general philosophy was “Get in. Keep up. Move inward.” Slower swimmers—I was one of them—populated the outside lanes. You shifted from lanes one and ten to two and nine, then three and eight, and so forth. The fastest swimmers—and there were Olympians on that team—swam in the center of the pool: lanes four and five. In the two summers I swam there, I never nosed into the center (not 4 and 5, not even 3 and 6), but I could see them. I chased and swam faster.
When I swam in Iowa in 1976, we gathered in the evenings to watch the Montreal Olympics. The American men won every event except one (Britain’s David Wilkie took the 200 Breaststroke), and the men set world records in every event except the 100 Butterfly (Mark Spitz’s last record). The East German women had a similar performance, helped, as we know now, by PEDs. The revolution in training (all those miles) caused significant drops in times for those of us who did not use steroids. We were swimming fast, and we all could swim faster. We wore T-shirts emblazoned with the motto: SWIMMING IS MORE FUN WHEN YOU’RE IN SHAPE. And we got in shape by watching our times.
When I returned to my school, I leaped onto the varsity, still not the best, but game. I kept up in practice, By the fall, I was under five minutes in the 500, and my breaststroke time dropped over ten seconds. Raw and brutal repetition rewarded me. The two-hour practices we did at school were intense and competitive. If you weren’t the leader in your lane, you damn well chased the leader, and if you caught them, then you had to lead. Leading was a privilege, but your trailing feet became targets for the hungry swimmers behind you. We each had our strengths, each took the lead on various sets. I had a vicious breaststroke kick, which meniscus surgery 30 years later can attest to. I swam hard, and even later, when I swam just to stay fit, the habits continued. I checked my pulse. I looked at the clock.
During the 2021 Olympic swimming coverage, I saw the swimmers stare at the clock (digital, not analog) in the distance. I saw the looks of joy and disappointment driven not by winning or losing but by their times. Was that my best? Did I meet my goal? While the competition may drive many, after a while, the clock becomes the primary combatant. I may have been cognizant of where my teammates were in the pool (chase! chase!), but mostly I looked up and saw that red clock hand sweeping past a black hash mark. Watching the Olympics, if I yelled it once, I yelled it a dozen times, “Show the times!”
The next time you watch swimmers (or runners), notice where they look at the end of their races. If you want to know how they feel, know that they are keenly aware of the inexorable, implacable opponent of the clock. They have looked up thousands of times. And then they have put their heads back down. It is time to go again.