Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Swimming Story 2.0

The last swimming story started out as just a response to a post on 2p2 that, once I engaged my full rambling abilities, turned into enough to put up on here.  This next one, however, I'm starting specifically to put here.  It's a way better story, and is definitely one of my fondest sports memories.

I swam for the Washington County YMCA from age 10 to 17, meaning specifically as a 5th grader clean though to the end of high school.  For my first five years, my age group was just utterly and fantastically dominant.  We never lost a meet;  we seldom even lost a race.  And twice, when I was 11 and then again when I was 13, we actually won the overall team state championship.  We had a kid who eventually made a trials cut and swam for Bolles. We had kids who went on to swim for solid college programs and score points at nationals.  We had kids whose careers never amounted to much but were dominant at a young age.  We just had an unimaginable amount of talent.  At district championships (half the state) when I was 14, the four swimmers in my age group won 5 of the 7 individual events (it would have been 6 but Brian got questionably DQ'ed in the 100 fly) and the the medley relay.   In a dual meet vs the other 20 or so teams, we probably could have won.

While all this was happening a new coach had just taken over, and the team as a whole was also rocketing up the Western PA YMCA ladder.  It worked just like European soccer;  there were three divisions, and the champs and last place finishers got relegated and promoted at the end of the year.  When I started out we were a middle of the road D2 team.  By the middle of my tenure we were competing for the D1 title (and I believe we actually won it one year).  My career also was going gangbusters, with me starting out as a 10 year old with a bit of talent, then morphing into a 12 year old monster, popping a top ten national time in the 50 breast stroke.  When I was 14 I was still very, very good, but I had also stopped growing.  I finished my career 6 years later as a sophomore at MIT, and still had standing personal best times from Age Group Championships in 1996.  In short, I never got any faster, and made do with the talent I had to drag out my career as long as possible.  The same fate basically befell my YMCA team as a whole.  Some talented kids just quit swimming.  Others moved on to bigger and better teams.  Others focused on their high school teams.  We just ran out of steam.

Our story takes place when I was a 15 year old high school sophomore, swimming in the "senior boys" division, in the first year that we were really on the decline but before we really knew it.  To start, I'll give you a little background on how a YMCA swim meet worked.  There were 10 age divisions (5 boys, 5 girls) ranging from "8 and under" up to "15-18".  The final score of the overall meet would always add to 10, with one point going to the winner of the individual meet that occurred within each age group.  This is kind of a weird scoring system, but it ensured that teams had to stay "complete" and be competitive in as many age groups as possible.  In previous years, like when I was 13, my "junior boys" age group may have actually goose egged opponents, scoring every available point across the 7 individual events and 2 relays.  That didn't matter;  we got 1 point.

Our opponent this weekend was Indiana County, a perennial power house who at the time hadn't lost a meet in something like 5 years.  If I'm not mistaken we actually had won the championship the year before, swimming them to a 5-5 draw but claiming the total points scored tie break, but I could be wrong there.  One way or another this meet was a big effin' deal, as big a deal as regular season meets ever got really, and the senior boys were really amped up for it.  There was just one problem....there were only four of us.  That's right;  four.  But Jesse, in your last post you said your high school team had seven dudes, and that wasn't enough to mathematically win a meet vs ten able bodied humans.  How on Earth can a team of four compete?  Well, dear reader, the difference lies in the chosen scoring system.  High school meets were scored 6 4 3 2 1 0 for the six kids who swam the race, and the (three) relays went something like 8 4 2 if I am not mistaken.  That system meant, basically, that if you didn't have a little depth you didn't stand a chance.  YMCA meets, however, were scored very differently, mainly because even large teams would occasionally have age groups that just didn't have that many kids.  In the senior boys age group there were eight individual events and just two relays.  Each swimmer could swim four times, with a maximum of three individual events.  The scoring system for relays was a very harsh seven for first, zero for second, and individual events went 5 3 1 (0 0 0).  You can see what happens here very quickly;  in a high school meet your team could "lose" an event, even if it won, since second third and fourth were worth so much.  In a YMCA event if your guy finished first, you scored the most points in the event, plain and simple.

The Indiana senior boys were a force to be reckoned with.  They had talent up and down the ranks, and to boot they were likely to "age up" a couple of 14 year old studs (you were allowed to do this) because we had nobody beneath us to keep them honest whatsoever.  They could win the 13-14 year old division without their best few kids, so why not move those guys up and crush us.  Remember, in the previous five seasons I had grown accustomed to winning every single meet, usually by scores resembling 50-10.  My age group had never lost a regular season meet, and I didn't intend to start now.

On the bus on the way to the meet, however, it became pretty clear that we simply didn't have enough fire power.  If they aged up Ryan Grindle and Kellen Novels, as we suspected they would, there was almost no way we could win the meet straight up.  Kellen was a hoss in the 100 breast stroke;  he was probably going to beat me in that event.  Ryan was a pretty solid backstroker, and even at 14 years old we were gonna have trouble beating him (backstroke was our "hole").  More importantly if he came up and won that event, it would free their level nine boss to crush us in other events.  Because what it really came down to was this simple fact;  Jimmy Mann was the best swimmer at the pool that day.  He was capable of winning at least five of the eight individual events, and there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it.  I don't remember who else they were working with, but they had at least seven or eight kids and it was just flat out grim.  Pouring over results from previous meets it was obvious that if we went strength against strength we just couldn't win.  We tried moving our events around a little bit, but we couldn't find any line up that gave us even a remote shot of winning.  Jimmy was just going to score too many points.  Hell, when it came right down to it we thought there was a (small) chance we'd lose the opening medley relay.  If that happened we were just absolutely toast, because we'd have burned through 25% of our swims for zero points and could never hope to get out of the hole.....

Then Tim came up with it.  He was our head coach's son, and he eventually went on to swim for four years at the freaking Naval Academy and become a fighter pilot, so it's not entirely surprising he figured this out but for a 16 year old kid it was truly a stroke of genius.  Remember everything I just said, about how if we lost that relay we'd have no chance?  We weren't the only ones who knew that.  If we entered that relay and lost, the other team, and specifically the other team's head coach, a guy named Eric Neil if I remember correctly, was going to know we'd lost the age group.  At that point, it's possible that he'd shuffle his lineup, do some silly things, etc.  Of course, it'll all be too late, since as I said we'd be crushed.  Remember the scoring system and the total number of events.  With only four guys it was impossible for us to field both relays.  We'd need to leave one uncontested, hope to win the other for a split, then win the individual events.  It was the best we could hope for.   So what we were going to do?

Swim the relay "exhibition", that's what.  The way the scoring system worked back then was that you turned in a card, with your name, lane number, and the event number on it before your race.  After the race the times (and finishing order) went on those cards, which were collected and taken to the scorer's table, which kept a running tally of the score in all 10 age groups throughout the entire meet.  The catch was that at any time any swimmer could swim a race "exhibition", simply by writing that word on his card in one very clear place.  The idea was to allow kids to swim more events in crowded age groups.  Sometimes extra heats got added to do this, other times a girl would swim exhibition in an empty lane in a boys heat or vice versa.  The point is that a system was in place for allowing this to happen, and we were going to walk up to the blocks with two cards, one "official" and one "exhibition".  If the studs we expected to age up from the junior division were actually there, Tim would turn in the exhibition card.  If their regulars showed up and we thought we could actually win, we would go for the kill right there and simply hope for the best the rest of the meet.  And to top it all off, we told no one of this plan other than the head coach (who loved it).  So when Kellen and Ryan showed up and Tim turned in the exhibition card, none of us acted any differently about the thing.  We all gave it our best, trying to win the race, and you know what, as it turns out we somehow actually could have (which is odd, now that I think about it.  Ryan should have beaten our backstroker (confusingly also named Jim), Kellen definitely should have beaten me...I guess Brian just smoked whoever they had swimming the butterfly) until...the master stroke.

Tim threw the race.  With Ryan aged up to swim the back  (and Kellen did come with him and did smote me), Jimmy Mann swam the freestyle leg vs Tim (remember, he's our head coach's son) and Tim just simply....let...him...win.  At the time he was capable of 49s in his sleep, and he backed off the gas enough to swim a 51 something or other, a world of difference in a race of that length.  Our parents thought we'd lost.  Our assistant coaches thought we'd lost.  The air was let out of our entire side of the bleachers, and we did not let on.  And most importantly, Eric Neil knew he'd won.  You see, he and my coach had a little bit of bad blood from the previous few years.  I'm not really sure what it was all about, and remembering it now it seems sort of silly, but I do know that Eric had a bit of a hard on for Steve (our coach) and really wanted to beat him (now I'm thinking us winning the championship the year before could be accurate).  So what did he do?  He took the bait...hook.  Line.  And sinker.  His senior boys were up 7-0 AND had just beaten us in the medley relay;  he couldn't lose. It was time to go for the jugular.  He junked his lineup and moved Jimmy Mann, the level nine boss who should have won three events without breaking a sweat, into the only two events he could realistically lose;  the 50 and 100 freestyles, where he'd go head to head with Tim.

I don't actually remember a lot of details from the meet.  Obviously we all had to swim three individuals each, which was a little tough for everybody, but we were used to it.  I swam the 200 IM (which I probably won, since Jimmy Mann had cleared out), and I suppose the 200 freestyle?  I'm not even sure.  And obviously I swam the 100 breast, which was always the last event, right before the 400 freestyle relay.  Brian swam the 100 fly, but I don't know what else.  He turned into the best swimmer of all of us in college, but at the time hadn't really become a stud yet so that's confusing me a little here.  Somebody had to cover the 500;  I bet it was Tim.  Our fourth guy, Jim Hitchcock, a generalist if there ever was one, was poorly wasted;  he just wasn't fast enough at any specific event to win it, and probably ended up with like three third places in the 100 back, 100 fly, and 200 free or some other such nonsense.  But remember, there were only 72 points available, and (assuming we won the 400 free relay at the end) we only had to get half.   And guess what?  Tim beat Jimmy like a rented mule in both sprint freestyle events.  It wasn't Jimmy's fault, really.  He was out-classed.  Tim was a specialist, and these were literally the only two events (strokes AND distances) that he could have beaten the kid in. But beat him he did.

Some time late in the meet (when probably only two individual races were left) one of the senior boys from Indiana meandered over to the scorer's table just to confirm that everything was in hand.  This was common practice, the score wasn't a secret or anything.  The coaches could always check the score of any age group at any time.  We were doing well enough, but since we couldn't field a relay at the end of the meet all they had to do was stay within seven points of us (and remember they started off up 7-0!) and they were golden.  But when looking at the score sheet he saw something that the middle aged women running the table had neglected to share with anyone else.  It shouldn't have been important.  Why would it be?  This boy, however, immediately realized what had happened, and he quite literally screamed, across the pool for everyone to hear

"Eric!  ERIC!!!!  Their relay was EXHIBITION!!!!"

You're not supposed to run on a pool deck.  Everybody knows this.  Men who have coached age group swimmers for over a decade, in particular, tend to be aware of this simple yet important rule and the consequences of breaking it.  For  brief moment, however, Eric Neil simply did not care.  I cannot recall seeing a grown man, a coach of children, look more flustered than he did that day.  And I've seen coaches ejected from little league games.  He was beside himself, and of course it's pretty clear why.  First of all, he had to contend with (and dismiss) the possibility that we had actually cheated, inserting the word "exhibition" on our card after we had lost the race.  That, however, was patently ridiculous.  Then it probably sank in.  Tim losing the race in such stunning fashion, then pummeling Jimmy by swimming two seconds faster in the individual event of the same stroke and distance....it all made sense.  He'd been had, and it was too late.  His level 9 boss, the great Jimmy Mann, had already used all four of his swims, and what had he gotten for them?  A win in an UNCONTESTED relay, a pair of second places, and a win in some other event (probably the 100 fly).  They were going to field a team in the 400 freestyle relay, but it stood no chance of beating us.  Tim was literally three+ seconds faster than anybody not named Jimmy on their team, and whoever that guy was he was probably out of swims too, having been TOTALLY wasted taking a pair of thirds in the sprint freestyle events!  Even with the nearly painful to watch 56 I was going to swim, we couldn't lose.  We had gotten away with it, and had all we could have hoped for, a chance to win.

Except for one minor detail.  I wish, oh how I wish, that this story had a happy fairy tale ending.  I wish I could tell you that I stepped up on the blocks in the 100 breast, at the same pool where I'd beaten Kellen three years earlier in the first memorable swimming event of my career, the first one where everybody realized "holy crap this kid is fast" after screaming their lungs out, and taken care of business.  By now everybody knew.  Word of our deception had gotten out and spread through the stands like wildfire.  This was the race of the meet, and it was going to be contested between me and a kid I used to own but at the moment had me outmatched.  The situation was pretty simple.  I was our only swimmer in the event, and they had two or three guys, doesn't matter.  We were behind by eight points, but we were going to make up seven of those in the relay.  That means if I won the race and scored five points to their four (for second and third) we could force a 43-43 tie in the age group.  It was me in the middle of the pool, with Kellen on one side and some other kid (I wish I could remember his name..he was a senior in high school I know that) on the other.  But it wasn't meant to be.  Kellen crushed me, winning the race by two seconds, 1:03 to 1:05.  And it was never close, as I was actually probably gaining on him at the end but ran out of water.  My time was a fantastic mid-season result for me, but I was simply out-classed. We won the 400 freestyle relay with great ease, but it was too little too late.  What had to be one of the greatest strategic maneuvers in the history of a sport almost completely devoid of them went for naught.  We rode the bus home beaten but curiously satisfied.  It's not often in a sporting event that you're sure you did ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING you could have possible done to win.  That night we were sure we had.

Next time maybe I'll tell you about baking soda loading :)

No comments: