As some of you know, my children swim with a summer swim team. My now 8yo joined the team in 2007, just before he turned six. His younger brother, who was 2 ½ at the time, fell deeply in love with the swim team. He was a devoted fan and tagger-along. From practices to Saturday meets to Friday night pasta parties, there was nothing about swim team that didn’t enchant my little one. He wore a team t-shirt whenever he could, and insisted on wearing goggles whenever he was anywhere near the pool. He lived for the day when he too would be a “swim team boy”. His devotion to swim team intensified last summer, as his brother entered his second year with the team. “Next summer” we told him over and over again. Children can join the developmental team at age 4, and he wasn’t quite four last summer.
This was his year. As Memorial Day approached, 4yo grew more and more excited. Next week, I’m on the swim team! Tomorrow, I’m on the swim team! FINALLY, the first day of practice arrived. 8yo, now a seasoned veteran, ran to join his teammates in the 8 and under practice, while 4yo joined the beginners on the developmental team.
The developmental team is for the four, five and six year old swimmers who aren’t quite ready for the big leagues. It was the job of the two 17-year-old assistant coaches (who also swim on the team) to get this little band of sweet-faced, round-bellied preschoolers to swim across the pool, eventually to compete in a meet.
In our league, all of the swimmers earn participation trophies. Any child who practices every day and swims in at least one meet earns their trophy. 8yo has two now, and will receive his third next week. 4yo covets these trophies, and “covet” should be read as “yearns with singular and undying passion” His mission, once Memorial Day arrived, was to swim across the pool and get that trophy. “It will have my name on it”, he’d say. “I’ll put it on the shelf in our room”.
The first day of practice was two days after Memorial Day. It was chilly, and the water was flat out cold. After the coaches led the kids in a “getting to know you” exercise (favorite colors were very important), it was time to swim. Each child had to jump into the chilly water into the arms of the coaches, who’d lead them across the pool.
4yo jumped in without hesitation. It was cold, but he’s a swim team boy. For the first week or so, every day was the same. Tiny aspiring swimmers waited on the deck for their turn to be pulled across the pool. Then, it was time to let go. One by one, the kids gathered their courage and swam by themselves from one coach to the waiting arms of the other. Each day, the distance between the two coaches grew a bit, until the kids were swimming all the way across the pool. All but one, that is. 4yo was willing to jump in the water, to submerge his face and blow bubbles, and practice his kicks on the kickboard, but he would not try to swim by himself, even for a few feet.
It was puzzling. He’s not usually afraid to try new things, and he loves the water. During his winter swim lessons, he’d reached the point where he could swim for a few strokes, as long as he had someone next to him. Nothing I said, or that his coaches said, though, could convince him that he wasn’t going to sink. “That lane is rilly big”, he’d say. “I do NOT fit in that water. I rilly rilly rilly don’t fit in that water”.
4yo began to get anxious about practice, and I told him that he didn’t have to do it anymore if he didn’t want to. I don’t encourage my children to quit, but he’s only four. I told him that he could keep going to practices and meets like last year and we could try the team again next year. 4yo wanted to keep trying, so he went to practice every morning and every afternoon, each time jumping willingly into the water, then refusing to swim.
By the second week of July, it was apparent that 4yo still loved everything about swim team, except the actual swimming. His teammates had moved on, learning lateral breathing, breaststroke (“scoop up the ice cream, eat it, then go get some more”) and even backstroke. I arranged for some private lessons with the head coach, and he started to make a little progress, swimming three or four strokes from her arms to the ladder. Finally, one day, 4yo told his coaches that he wanted to try to swim backstroke. He hadn’t swum more than a stroke or two of freestyle, but if he wanted to try backstroke, the coaches were willing. After a few panicky clutches at the girls’ necks when they tried to remove their hands from under his back, 4yo was floating. The coaches taught him the “tickle, T, touch” stroke, which resembles a bird flying on its back, and 4yo was swimming! Practice was over for the day, but he could officially swim.
The next day’s practice was even more successful. Swimming on his back, 4yo swam the full length of the pool by himself. A coach treaded water alongside him, but he was floating and moving independently. “That’s it!” called the head coach. “He’s in for backstroke on Wednesday night. If that’s what he can do, then that’s what we’ll have him do!”
“Wednesday night” referred to the following week’s “B” meet. B meets don’t count in the standings. They’re practice meets, swum against nearby teams who might or might not be in our division or even in our league. One important thing, though, is that B meets DO count toward the participation trophy. It looked like 4yo had just made it. It was Friday, July 10. The B meet on Wednesday July 15 was the last B meet of the season, and it was 4yo’s last and possibly only chance for a trophy. It was too late to enter him in the next day’s A meet, and if he didn’t swim in the B meet, he certainly wouldn’t be entered in the following week’s A meet, the last regular-season meet of the year.
For the next three days, we gently psyched 4yo up for the meet. His brother practiced starts with him; 4yo would hang on the kitchen counter like it was the wall of the pool, with the most earnest and determined look. Anticipation got the better of him, though. By Monday, he changed the subject any time the meet came up. On Tuesday, he told me that he was NOT going to swim in the big lane. I acted nonchalant.
“Oh sure you will. It will be just like practice yesterday and this morning. You’ll just swim across the pool like you did today.“ He shook his head and walked away.
On Wednesday morning, his first words to me were “I rilly rilly rilly do not want to swim in the B meet today”.
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m rilly scared”, he said.
Lest anyone get the idea that I’m some sort of sports stage mother, banish the idea from your mind. I want my children to do their best and be happy, and that’s all. After all, he’s only four. He’s the youngest and the tiniest member of the team, and maybe he just wasn’t ready. But he’s also a four year old who’s longed for a swim team trophy for two years. This was his year, and unless he made it across the pool in at least a B meet, he wasn’t going to get it. He’d either have to miss the awards dinner (outdoors at the pool pavilion and one of the most fun nights of the summer) or he’d have to watch as every single one of his friends proudly claimed a trophy. He’d be so sad, and I couldn’t stand the thought of it. But I couldn’t force him into the pool when he was terrified, either. He grew more anxious throughout the day, and I told him that he didn’t have to do it, but that I knew he could and that I hoped he’d change his mind. “I’m NOT gonna change my mind” he said grimly.
It was time to get ready to go. The meet was at 6, and we needed to get there by 5:30 for warm-ups. I handed the kids their suits. “I don’t need my suit” said 4yo. “I’m not gonna swim”. “I’m not going to make you swim”, I said. “But if you DO change your mind, you’ll need your suit”. He put it on without a word. “Are you gonna change your mind?” asked 8yo excitedly. 4yo didn’t answer.
As soon as we arrived at the pool, the two young coaches ran to 4yo. They are lovely girls, and they really like my son. I like anyone who likes my children. Each of them asked him if he was ready, and to each of them, he said “NO”, firmly shaking his head. His team buddy, a 12 year old boy whom he adores, asked him if he was ready. “NO” he said, with a firm headshake. Several parents and friends of 8yo stopped to ask if he was ready. Firm shake of the head to each of them.
When he'd put his suit on without protest, and hadn't said NO to 8yo before we left the house, I thought that perhaps he’d begun to reconsider. But his firm anti-swimming resolve had returned. Meanwhile, the meet started. In our league, the meets begin with butterfly, followed by freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke. There was plenty of time. A few more people stopped to ask 4yo if he was ready, and a few more people received a grim shake of the head.
When the Clerk of Course started to call the first group of backstroke swimmers, the head coach asked one of the assistants to get my son. His age group wasn’t up yet, but she wanted some time alone with him. Our head coach has been teaching and coaching swimming for her entire adult life. She doesn’t have much day to day interaction with the developmental swimmers, but she knows them all and knows what they can do. One of the girls told her that 4yo was digging in his heels, and she came over. I gave her a quick recap of the day’s events, and she asked if she could have a few private minutes with him. I walked away and watched from a distance.
She knelt down, put her hands on his tiny shoulders, and spoke gently to him. He whispered something in her ear, and she answered. He whispered again, and she answered. She patted his cheek and said something; he nodded earnestly, and walked over to me. The coach gave me a thumbs-up gesture. Two minutes, and she’d gotten him to agree to swim. The Clerk of Course called his age group, and 8yo led him by the hand to the table. It’s impossible to convey how tiny he looked to me just then.
While the boys signed in, the coach explained what she had told him. This particular pool has a full wall the length of the lap section (our pool is T-shaped, with shallow ends on either side of the lap lanes, so the wall ends midway through). She told him that he could swim in the lane against the wall, and that he could grab the wall if he needed. More importantly, as a coach, she was allowed to walk the length of the course as he swam it. She had promised him that every time he looked over, she’d be there, and that she’d get him if he started to sink. “Won’t he be disqualified?” I asked. “Oh sure”, she said, “but it doesn’t matter, as long as he gets across the pool. He can flip over and swim freestyle, he can grab the rope or the wall…as long as I don’t actually have to pull him out, his race counts for the participation trophy”.
My heart started to pound when the announcer called the six and under backstroke (in A meets, there’s no such thing as six and under, but in B meets, the 7 and 8 year olds sometimes swim separately from the six and unders, to give the little ones a chance to win a race once in a while). 4yo came marching over to the pool, hand-in-hand with the head coach. She helped him with his goggles, whispered in his ear, and helped him into the pool when “take your mark” was called. He clung to the wall, and as the buzzer sounded, he was off.
By now, everyone at the meet knew what was going on, and a crowd had gathered. As 4yo swam, the applause grew. He flipped over every few feet to see how far he’d gone. True to her word, the coach walked along, and she crouched and shouted encouragement every time he looked at her. He kept going. He turned over at least five times, and at 20 meters or so, he grabbed the wall and rested for a moment. The timers and coaches from both teams screamed “you’re almost there! Keep going! Just a few more strokes! Just one more! Touch the wall! YOU DID IT!”
Three minutes and seven seconds after the buzzer sounded and at least a minute and a half after the next to last swimmer finished, 4yo touched the wall and at least a hundred parents, swimmers, and coaches erupted in a cheer. 4yo climbed out of the pool, ran to me and burst into tears, overwhelmed.
I almost started to cry myself. What had I done to this poor little boy? He wasn’t ready, and I had allowed him to be forced to swim when he wasn’t ready. Yes, he’d get his trophy, but was it worth it?
We walked to a picnic table together. People who hadn’t seen him start to cry started to approach us to congratulate him, and they walked away when they saw him sobbing. We sat for a few minutes, and 4yo’s sobs gradually subsided as I held him and patted his back. He was quiet for a minute. Then, “Mommy?”
“The boys said that they were gonna buy me Airheads at the snack bar if I swimmed in the meet.”
“Yeah! Can you help me find them?”
Yes, I could. “The boys” were 4yo’s 12 year old buddy and two of his friends, all of whom had promised to buy 4yo one of his beloved Airheads after his first meet. It was time to collect. As we walked across the lawn, 4yo spotted one of the boys first and ran toward him, shouting “I touched the wall! I swimmed backstroke across the pool and I touched the wall! I’m gonna get a trophy with my name on it!”
He got high fives from the kids who gathered around as they saw him run back to the team area. Hand in hand with two preteen boys, he headed for the snack bar. That snack bar was full of Airheads, and one of them had 4yo’s name on it.