I was always a pokey swimmer so I never participated in competitive swimming during high school.
But I still love to swim.
During the building of our new home in 1999, I lost every single design argument to my wife. Every single argument . . . except one – the swimming pool. If I had to win only one, I’m glad it was that one. Having a pool was the only thing I really cared about.
Once we moved in, I immediately adopted a use-it-or-lose-it policy and swam every day. My routine wasn’t designed for competition as I just piddlepaddled back and forth leisurely. There were no heart palpitations and no loss of breath. However, I did improve rather dramatically and, as a result, got a bit full of myself.
When the 2000 Olympics cranked up that September, I took particular interest in the swimming events to see if I could glean any refinements to my technique other than needing to be 30 years younger, four inches taller, and ten times stronger.
Early in the action, Brooke Bennett, a 20-year old American, won the gold medal in the women’s 400-meter freestyle with a time of 4 minutes 5.08 seconds.
I mused, hey, I swim the equivalent of the 400-meter freestyle. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how my time compares to Brooke’s?
My pool is 16 yards long. Since a meter is 1.0936133 yards, I figured if I swam 28 lengths that would equal about 409.65 meters.
Instead of my normal dillydallying, I planned to go full bore and leave it all in the pool, even if the fire department had to fish my spent body out of the water.
So I wouldn’t lose track of my laps, I placed seven of my son’s water pistols in a pile at one end of the pool. After each roundtrip I’d quickly move one pistol to the right. When all seven were moved, then on the following lap I’d start moving them back to the left.
I gave it everything. My lungs seared with pain, my muscles screamed for mercy, my heart raced wildly, but I continued the pace. I “sprinted” the last two lengths and grabbed for my watch. 9 minutes and 8 seconds. Subtract 12 seconds for the extra nine yards I had to swim and my time would have been 8 minutes and a lot of “change.” Depression engulfed me. I felt suddenly old. If this were a 50-meter pool, Brooke would have lapped me twice even before I was half done. I realized I was nothing more than a deluded, doddering dodo. I was ready to quit swimming altogether.
Each night during the Olympics, NBC did a segment that
focused on some offbeat slice of Olympic life. That evening’s story involved
the first heat of the men’s 100-meter freestyle. The commentator explained that
the International Olympic Committee waives the qualifying times for those
countries that don’t indulge in the competitive sports played during the
Olympics. For example,
To give these athletes their Olympic experience, these three guys were put in their own heat. It took place at the crack of dawn when hardly anyone was in the stands.
Even still, the pressure must have been great because both Bare and Oripov got disqualified for false starts. That meant Eric Moussambani had to swim the first heat all by himself. NBC went on to say that Eric had learned to swim just six months earlier and that he had never been in a pool as big as the one we was about to dive into.
Eric started swimming as hard as he could. It was clear that he wasn’t accustomed to the 50-meter length because at the turn poor Eric was visibly pooped. After he valiantly pushed off for the homestretch, his stroke morphed into a flail, resembling that of a seriously distressed swimmer about to drown.
Initially the few spectators laughed derisively at him, but as he desperately thrashed away, the fans got caught up in the spirit and started to cheer him on. With each frantic stroke, it became more and more inspiring.
Eric Moussambani finished to a sincerely-given standing ovation
and I got goose bumps. His time was one minute and 52.72 seconds. (For a frame
of reference, Pieter van der Hoogenband of the
After I watched his painful performance, I realized that Eric Moussambani had just given me a chance to redeem myself. Even though I couldn’t come close to competing with the women’s gold medalist in the 400, I knew I had a fighting chance to beat Eric Moussambani in the 100 free.
I immediately marched off to the pool with my game face on. This was serious. Even at 54-years old, if I couldn’t beat someone who learned to swim six months ago, I was going to hang it up.
I took my position with a great deal of trepidation. I had done the math. I had divided my 400-meter time by 4 and saw that if I swam at the same pace, I would have lost to Moussambani.
I hit the start button to my stop watch and slammed into the water. I swam as if the Mob were on my tail. I would not allow my brain to entertain any thought of fatigue, pain, or need for oxygen. I ignored my frontal lobe when it pleaded for sanity. I was swimming to protect my manhood. I was swimming to keep my ego intact. I was swimming to justify my having a pool in the first place.
I touched the wall at the end of the seventh lap and turned off my watch. Merciful God, I beat Moussambani’s time by over fifteen seconds! I had been reprieved!
Epilogue: I have since stopped timing myself. It was making
the idea of swimming down right unpleasant. These days, I am back to leisurely
paddling back and forth, content to know that I am good enough to be an Olympic
swimmer. All I have to do is move to
P.S. A kind reader supplied me with a link to a video of Moussambani's swim. Click here.