You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
Updated: Aug 5, 2022
For the past 2 ½ months, I’ve spent some of my swimming time in a 50-meter, Olympic-
sized pool wondering whatever possessed me to volunteer to swim a 50-meter butterfly leg in a relay. If you ever watched swimming at the Olympics, you’ve seen a 50-meter pool. It looks long even on television because it is long.
This relay was one of four that a Tamalpais Aquatic Masters (TAM) teammate, Nancy Ridout, put together for Pacific Masters Long Course Meter Championships. She wanted to show the Masters swimming community that older women can not only swim but can compete at a high level. She collected five other women from TAM ages, 75, 79, 80, 84 and 87 and basically said, "let’s go have fun," but she was really thinking, “let’s knock their socks off.”
For this medley relay (50 meters of backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle) everyone claimed their specialty. What was left was fly. I jokingly said something like, “I don’t have to do fly, do I?” Yeah, I did.
Am I flyer? No. I swam a 50-yard fly once three years ago and was happy to go immediately into retirement. Not a yard of butterfly since. Could I swim a 50-meter fly? No. But, I remember thinking “how hard could it be?”
Then I finally slipped into a 50-meter pool and started to warm up with freestyle. The pool grew longer with each stroke. I picked my head up and glanced around. I wasn’t even halfway to the end. When I finally touched the wall (after just one lap), it hit me. I had agreed to do something that I couldn’t do, and probably shouldn’t even try. What a dolt!
From then on, I threw myself into long course pools twice a week. My thoughts jumped back and forth between, “how can I get out of this?” to “if I drop out, there is no IM relay” to “just keep swimming.” I practiced swimming fly with one arm at a time, dolphin kicks on my back, my side, my stomach until my legs grew rubbery. I pushed off the wall, put the stroke together, breathe, stroke, stroke, breathe stroke, stroke until I felt like I was about to black out. I stopped. I hadn't reached the middle of the pool. I did this over and over without much progress.
Then, I began to inch closer to the other end. Until finally, two weeks before the meet, I could swim the whole way. The goal for my part of the relay was to finish one measly lap. Speed, since I didn’t have any, was not even in the picture.
Day of the race, my nerves shut down every part of my body but my overactive brain. The hamster wheel in my head circled at top speed. "Could I do it? What if I couldn’t? Could I stop in the middle of the lap and float? What if my legs cramped up?”
Then my relay heat was called and another teammate, her husband and two little boys stood next to me and tried to be encouraging. “Look at all the people at the other end of your lane.” My teammates were grouped together at the pool's end waiting for the starting beep. They looked so far away.
“You got this,” said my friend.
The breaststroker was on her way to my end of the pool. I would be the third swimmer in the water.
I climbed up on the blocks stretched my arms out and tracked her approach toward me. When I saw her fingers a fraction of an inch from the wall, I dove in and started to kick. Earlier I located some landmarks to tell me how far I had to go. The ladder was halfway. The red tent was two-thirds. But I never saw them. I kept moving, stroke after stroke, kick after kick until 4 strokes more, 3, 2, and then I planted both hands on the wall. My cheering squad went ballistic.
I did it. My first response? Complete and utter relief. Friends congratulated me over and over. They all knew this was not a fait accompli and they shared in my success. The rest of the meet flew by. The next day, our ladies 200-meter freestyle relay broke a national record. In fact, our team broke three National records and three Pacific Masters records during the weekend.
I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about all this. I’m an anxious person when it comes to competition. That’s not going to change. But there is already talk of the next meet and more relays. Will that hamster sprinting around in my head slow to a jog? Not likely. But I’ll figure out a way to get through it. I usually do.
Photos by Michelle McCabe