Today’s the first swim team practice for the 2008 season. A few minutes from now, my almost 7yo will plunge into the chilly pool water for the first time this year. My husband will watch from a deck chair.
The Dolphins (swimming is big in Washington DC, and 70% of the teams are some variation of a dolphin. I’d have called us the Sharks, or the Piranhas, or something equally intimidating, but we’re the Dolphins) are our neighborhood swim team. Open to all neighborhood children ages 5 through 18, of all abilities, the team has been in existence in one form or another for over 40 years. All of the current coaches are former Dolphins swimmers, and elderly neighbors whose children and grandchildren finished swimming decades ago still come to the pool for the Wednesday evening and Saturday morning meets. Backstroke flags are strung, music blares, the snack bar does a brisk nacho and pizza business, and competition for good seats on the deck is fierce.
My son is not a natural athlete. He has tremendous physical energy, and can run and jump for hours, but he’s not fast, and he’s not coordinated. He takes after his mother. He has no interest in most organized sports, and we’ve decided not to sign him up for baseball or soccer until he asks to play. He first started asking about swim team during our second summer here; he saw the kids in their trunks and tshirts and thought that he’d like to be part of that. So we signed him up last season, just before his 6th birthday. The first few weeks were touch and go. The water was cold, the older kids were scary, and at his first two meets, he was terrified and refused to swim in his events. We talked to his coach, and she said that it happens every year; even more outgoing or athletic kids are struck with stage fright on meet day; the whistles, scoring table, banners, and noise can be overwhelming. Give it time, she said, just keep bringing him to practice, and we’ll get him in the pool at a meet.
This was reassuring. Our coach is a high school teacher (she also coaches high school swimming) and has been swimming competitively and teaching swimming for 30 years. She has managed to create an atmosphere in which my neighbor’s 12 year old daughter, one of the top swimmers in the city, remains challenged and continues to improve, and my shy 6 year old Lego fanatic, who spends hours every day in his own world, is also welcomed and encouraged.
Two days after his 6th birthday, we were at our 3rd meet, a Wednesday night “B” meet. The “B” meets are a little more relaxed, and count for a bit less in the standings. They’re untimed (unlike the Saturday “A” meets, which must end by 11:45 so that the pools can open at noon), so all swimmers can swim in their age group’s events. 6yo and I were sitting on the grass, watching the meet, when one of the young assistant coaches came striding toward us, clipboard in hand, ponytail swinging. “We need you!” she said.
6yo panicked for a moment. “I don’t want to dive!” he said. “I can’t go in headfirst!”
“You don’t have to! Just jump when the buzzer sounds, and swim to the other side. You did two laps today, I know you can do one! Come on!”
I started to coax him, and then my neighbor (mother of the 12 year old star) took him by the hand and gently marched him over to the starting blocks. She helped him with his goggles, whispered in his ear, and walked away. I was grateful to her for that; I still am.
The young swimmers on our team have older “buddies” who encourage them and tease them and cheer them on. My son’s buddy last summer was a bubbly, popular 15 year old girl. She quickly gathered a group of her friends at the start, and started chanting his name. The event (boys’ 8 and under 25 freestyle) was announced. The buzzer sounded. He looked over at me for a split second, and he jumped. His buddy and her friends were screaming his name, and he turned, smiling and waving, several times, reaching the other side of the pool dead last in his heat. He accepted congratulations from parents and coaches, dripping and beaming, becoming serious just for a moment as the head coach whispered something in his ear; he nodded earnestly in response. (I learned later that she was gently explaining that one swims to the finish FIRST, and THEN turns to give a shout out to one’s ladies. Who knew, right?) It was time to celebrate; I’d promised him that after he swam his first meet, he could have a WHOLE order of nachos and a SPRITE. My son is a naturally happy child, though shy, but I never saw him as happy as he was at that moment, wrapped in a towel, still accepting congratulations from parents and teenage teammates, with a bowl of nachos on his lap and a Sprite sipped through a straw.
It all starts again tonight. I’m psyched.