Two weeks ago, I—along with 2000 other swimmers—showed up in Mesa, Arizona to compete in an annual event known as “US Masters Swimming Short Course Nationals.”
Let’s dissect that phrase. For starters, US Masters Swimming is, to quote their website, “a membership-operated non-profit” with over 65,000 members, all of whom are swimmers over the age of 18. And, to be honest, most of us are well over the age of 18. “Short course” refers to the length of the pool. There are two kinds of competitive pools out there: Olympic—also called “long course”—pools, which are 50 meters long, and “short course” pools, which can be either 25 meters or 25 yards long (25 meters is longer, so results in the two types of pools are tracked separately). “Nationals” is just what it sounds like, the event where the best swimmers in the country (or, at least the best swimmers amongst those who can get the time off, make it to the event site, and care enough to participate) show up to compete against each other for questionably significant bragging rights.
I’d never really thought about going to Nationals before. I am decent swimmer, but I’m not really good enough to be flying across the country for a meet. However, when my coach in Flagstaff, AZ announced that Nationals would be in Mesa—a city only 2.5 hours from Flagstaff—and that she wanted to rally as many of us to go as possible, I decided I should sign myself up.
Actually, that’s not exactly true; in reality, there were a few intermediate steps I had to go through to convince myself this was a good idea. Swimmers are allowed to compete in up to three events at Nationals without qualifying times—minimum entry times posted by US Masters Swimming (USMS) each year. Racers are allowed to do a maximum of six events, however; in order to do so, they need qualifying times in at least three of them. I didn’t want to go if I couldn’t do six events, so I set about getting qualifying times by going to two meets in Arizona this spring. One was in Flagstaff, and while that meant I didn’t have to drive, it also meant that I was competing at altitude—the same altitude I’d been training at (7000 feet). I managed to muster up two qualifying times there, but the events that I knew were my strong suit had not been offered at that meet. I had to go to another event on another weekend at the ASU pool in Tempe in order to get the times I needed in the other events and take advantage of a 5500-foot drop in altitude. My extra red blood cells served me well; I got the numbers I needed.
I’d promised myself that if I had six qualifying times, I would commit to the meet (and, more importantly, the training leading up to it), so, as soon as I got home from Tempe, I got online, filled out my paperwork, and plunked down about $140 for registration fees. It was early March, just before the final entry deadline. I entered seed times for the 50, 100, and 200 breaststroke and the 100, 200, and 400 (gulp) IM.
Six weeks later, on the Thursday before my final week of graduate school and teaching, I drove down the big hill from Flagstaff to Phoenix—ascending thirty degrees in ambient air temperature along the way—with two simple goals: making it to the starting blocks for each of my events and not embarrassing myself. I had one other objective, too—a non-athletic one: checking out the scene.
And a scene it was. For starters, this aquatic facility, called the Kino Aquatic Center, is gigantic. It’s also strangely located; on my way to the women’s locker room I ended up in a maze of portables that are part of the middle school adjacent to the complex, and a twelve year-old girl had to guide me back. And then there’s the fact that Mesa itself is a little odd. It’s classic Phoenix sprawl—which is to say, miles of gridded streets with one-story brick and concrete homes punctuated by alarmingly homogeneous strip malls. Friday morning, I parked on the school’s baseball field and found my way to the gymnasium where a registration packet was waiting for me under the basketball hoop.
When I walked out onto the deck, I was blown away by the sheer number of lanes before me. The competition pool is 50 meters in one direction and 25 yards in the other, so when it is “set up for short course,” as we say—meaning the lane lines are running in the 25-yard direction— there are essentially two pools of nine lanes each separated by a floating divider that enables officials to have a better view of the events. In addition to these two pools, however, were two more, each with about eight lanes each, all being used for warm-up.
The competition pools were downright military in their organization. Odd heats were in one pool, even heats in the other. There were shade tents over the timers, a full-time announcer reading off names, and sophisticated scoreboards reporting splits to the hundredth of a second. The longest pauses between heats were about forty-five seconds, so the action went non-stop for four straight days.
The warm-up pools, on the other hand, were total mayhem. Twelve or fifteen people in a lane is a lot under any conditions. Twelve or fifteen people in a lane when some of them are former Olympians sprinting the 50 freestyle and others are middle-aged hacks like me prepping for a distance event like the 400OIM is outright chaos. It was nearly impossible to get any kind of yardage in, and having someone’s fingertips grazing your feet—or your fingertips tickling someone else’s—was par for the course. I noticed that some lanes were designated for folks over 65, reminding me that aging might have some significant perks.
Nevertheless, I somehow managed to warm up adequately for my races, figure out which pool I was racing in, get to the blocks on time, get off of them without disqualifying myself, and do the right strokes for the right amount of time. Mission accomplished. And I even did well—I earned medals in three events. Granted, Masters Nationals is the kind of feel-good experience in which medals are awarded to top ten finishers in each group, so my placements weren’t all that impressive. Still, I’ll admit, I claimed my copper trinkets proudly—mostly because I had knocked a few seconds off of those qualifying times I’d done the earlier meets to get, and that meant that my head had stayed in the game.
More significant than my finishes, however, was the inspiration I took away from the meet. I watched a 95-year-old woman swim the 100 backstroke. There were countless heats of 80-somethings competing in nearly every event, including all the butterfly ones. Eighteen records were broken over the course of the four days, and these ranged from former Olympians Matt Grevers and Katarzyna Wilk shaving tenths of seconds off of their events (the 50 backstroke and 50 freestyle, respectively) to a 70-something breaking a record in the 1650 free (yes, that’s a mile of swimming at race pace) and the Arizona Masters’ 85+ 200 free relay establishing a new time for their age group. One woman in the 75-79 age group, Daniela Barnea, broke three records—in the 400IM, the 200IM, and the 200 butterfly. The fact that she can even do these three events —all of which are considered amongst the hardest out there—is amazing.
It takes a special sort of person to keep competing in a sport through middle and late adulthood. Every one of the 2000+ swimmers who showed up for this event goes to a structured group practice on a regular basis—many of them 5 or more times per week, more often than not at 6am. Every one of these folks had to get to Mesa, AZ, and, while a lot of us were from Arizona, there were just as many people coming in from the east coast and the upper Midwest. And every one of them had to fight whatever demons arise in the face of competition—the ones that say things like, “you’re too old,” “you’re too fat,” “you’re not good enough to be here,” and “why are you wasting your time with this?” Those may be the biggest accomplishments of all.