Spring has sprung and that means it’s time for the masters state swim meet.
My last trip to the state meet was two years ago. I swam the 1650. This year, the meet was special.
We were defending champs. Every point would matter. The peer pressure was intense – 140 other swimmers were swimming. There were signs on deck calling out those who weren’t registered. But most importantly, we were swimming in honor of two swimmers who we lost this year. One who was especially important to me.
Years ago, I let a brilliant young woman named Clari borrow my cyclocross bike to take it on the adventure of a lifetime. She rode it across America for a charity group to support research for a condition that her brother had. That same summer, she also babysat Max at the quarry while Chris and I went swimming. When pregnant with Mackenzie, Clari and I swam in the same lane at the monster swim. Over the years, Clari’s mother had been a frequent lanemate of mine. In 2013, I advised her on how to train for her first Ironman – as a thank you, she bought my plane ticket to the 70.3 World Championship. Clari and her mother were a part of our life in very unique and close ways.
This past November, at the age of 19, Clari passed away. Unsure of whether it was the personal connection or the fact that I now had my own daughter, I felt incredibly sad. When the head coach announced that we would swim the state meet in memory of Clari, I felt compelled to swim. I felt it was the best I could do to honor her life and spirit.
Now, I’m a decent triathlon swimmer but pool swimming is a completely different story. I can fake it in the fast lane but I’m guilty of lane line pulling, open turning and putting on toys when intervals get really tight. When it comes to swim meets, I’m not exactly going to be a high points earner. So when I asked the head coach what I could do to gain points for the team, she came back with an immediate answer:
I couldn’t believe I walked right into that bear trap.
No swimmer in their right mind wants to do 200 fly. It’s painful. Most triathletes cannot even do fly. But as the coach reminded me, you’re an Ironwoman, you can do this! Mostly I just wanted to stay on her good side for the next year. Being on the head coach’s bad side could mean very, very painful things for a full year at masters. If all it takes is less than 4 minutes of pain, get me registered! Sure enough I looked at the results from last year and only 5 women did the 200 fly. As long as I finished, I would get points.
I had two weeks to panic train. In that time, I tried to swim as much fly as possible. Every workout I attended the coach suggested I do fly. Sprint 25s? Do them fly, Elizabeth. Distance day? You should do the “fast” as “fly”, Elizabeth. One day, she put Andrew (another poor swimmer who asked what he could do to get points) and I in a lane and made us do 200 fly in its entirety. The good news: I didn’t die. The bad news: that’s a lot of fly – 8 x 25 with NO REST!
A few nights, I even researched my strategy. I watched videos and searched forums how to race 200 butterfly. The general consensus was: 1) don’t, 2) go very easy for the first 50.
All of this effort was impressive if, and I mean IF I actually knew how to swim proper fly. And technically speaking, I have no idea what I am doing in the water. Years ago, tired of watching other swimmers so effortlessly move through the water with both arms and hips undulating as I had to substitute free for every set of fly, I finally said f-it, I'm trying. So I just started doing what I thought fly looked like. For whatever reason, it worked. I was moving forward and actually had some rhythm. But I still have no idea if what I think I’m doing is actually what I’m doing. I have visions of my Phelps-like powerful arms sweeping through the water with an explosive dolphin kick. When really I’m 62 inches tall and turnover like the wings of a hummingbird on meth. That fast. More like frenetic. As my masters coach said when I did the 1650, I cannot take credit for that stroke (in other words, she won’t).
The day of the meet, I traveled an hour north to Wisconsin for the Illinois state meet (huh?). The facility was beautiful – two pools – one for men, one for women with an additional warm up pool attached to an indoor water park. My mom accompanied me with the kids and after the meet we enjoyed that water park!
The warm up pool was salty mess of swimmers of all paces. Pretty much all that I accomplished was getting wet. I then waited nervously on deck, I in a bright pink cap and rainbow suit while everyone else around me had on one of those speedsuits.
Next up: 200 butterfly
In the 30 seconds before the race started I decided I would indeed dive off the blocks. But first I had to get on the block and look down. OH MY GOD WHO PUT THESE BLOCKS UP SO HIGH!? A long whistle, a take your mark and a beep. It was go time.
Sitting on the bulkhead was Amanda, Taylor and Beth (mother of Clari). An audience! I can only imagine the heckling. I glided through the first 50 (easy, go easy, this feels amazing!). The next 50 felt fantastic. That is, until right before the wall when I missed a breath. And then I started to burn – bad. I pushed off the wall and felt myself losing it. PANIC! But I was trapped in the 200. There was no turning back, no breaststroking. I had to regain my rhythm. And is that wall actually moving further away?
At that moment, I actually thought about Clari. As cliché as it sounds, it’s the truth. I thought of her spirit and how she would love to be there right now swimming. Pull it together, Liz. And then remembered something a lanemate said: Remember the time Gary did 200 fly and hung on the gutter for 2 seconds at every 25? I was going to channel my InnerGary.
Each pause at the wall was longer. At one point, Beth asked Amanda if I was ok. 100 yards left. 75, 50. The final 25 I picked up the pace.
I didn’t break any records, didn’t win my heat but did earn points by finishing 5th place in my age group. That would be 5th of 5. But really, I was 1st place.
Listen, it’s not my problem those other 4 swimmers showed up and stole 1st place from me.
Next up, 200 free relay.
Amanda, Beth, Carrie and I stood on deck. It felt special to be in a relay with Clari’s mom, Beth. She swam so many events in honor of Clari’s memory. She even swam 400 IM. I’ve never seen someone so relaxed about the 400 IM – it’s easy, you don’t have to go fast you just have to finish it.
I've also never seen someone so frantic about my limited counting/number turning skills when Amanda swam the 500 and someone (AMANDA) told Beth to keep an eye on me because of my potentially sub-par sign flipping skills; put it in the water - now, NOW! Get out of the way of her flip turn! More to the left! Don't turn it until she hits the flags! Pay attention!
Our relay ended up placing 3rd in state – though I had the slowest time of all 4 of us! Turns out I swim faster at practice from a push. The reason? Even my nonathletic mom said it: it’s your dive and she then proceeded to demonstrate some bizarre arm flailing and belly flop motion which made me realize if that’s what my mom sees god help me with what the athletes and coaches were seeing!
And that is how I ended up starting IN the water for the 500 free.
500 free. My last event. The long whistle and I hop into the water. I had been wet, standing around in my bathing suit going in and out of warm up lanes for the past 3 hours. I had eaten nothing but chunks of bagel and was really thirsty. But once the the race started, I felt amazing. One of those times where you feel totally in sync with the water and like nothing can slow you. I counted down the laps until one to go when I realized the final lap bell was being run IN FRONT OF MY LANE! The winner of the heat got a stuffed teddy bear and all I thought about was I want a damn bear! I swam one of my best 500 free times at a meet and won my heat. And, Mackenzie got a new teddy bear!
At the end of the day I was cold, wet, tired and yet invigorated. There’s just something about swim meets. Maybe it’s the energy of people of all ages, all sizes, all speeds sharing a common interest: swimming. First timers, ex collegiate swimmers. Triathletes talk about enjoying races because they get to share the course with the pros while they’re racing. Been to a swim meet? Sometimes I watch people like Adrienne on our team who threw down a 1:53 for the 200 free and wonder how they let me even swim in the same pool let alone the same lane. And what I love about swimmers? When we have swum together on sprint night, even when I’m panting with a time seconds slower than hers for a 25, Adrienne turns to look at me and says, good job, Elizabeth. I feel like the newbie swimming with the pro. And, I don’t know, it makes me feel all giddy. It makes me wonder if I can one day look that effortless and powerful. It makes me want to keep trying.
For the first time in a few years, our team didn’t win this year but … I think this year we did it for other reasons. It was a large coming together of people who wanted to honor two women who were completely different yet shared the same passion for swimming. I’m glad I was a part of it. And I’ve already decided that I’m going to do 200 fly again. I have a mental map of where it goes and how it feels. And next time I’ll be ready for it. I only have to take off over a minute to be the state champion.
That’s 15 seconds per 50.
I better start training.