An Athlete’s Horror Story From FINA Masters World Championships

Photo Courtesy: Sarah Condor-Fisher

Commentary by Sarah Condor-Fisher

I am probably very much like you – still young at heart and swimming because I love it.

Last year, at a local meet in Mission Viejo, I passed by two guys pointing at someone in the water, warming up before the meet: “He was in Italy last year, at the Worlds!…” The bug got to me and kept gnawing ever since.

I knew about “the Worlds” of course, but even if I wanted to go – I was not a U.S. citizen last year and representing “the old country” of the Czech Republic was not something I was keen on doing. From 1986 to 1988, virtually the entire swimming elite of Czechoslovakia vanished “over the mounds,” as they used to say in those days.  I was one of those people, having been caught in 1988 illegally crossing the border as a member of the 1988 Czechoslovak Olympic Team.

Well, I told myself, next year it’s in Canada – I am not going to travel all over the world for this, but in Canada… why, it’s basically home! The “I-might-never-go-again” factor played its role, as did the fact that I have come back to swimming after a long hiatus and wanted to swim as fast as ever. I trained hard, very hard, and tapered well, very well. I felt as ready as I ever could be on the day of my departure.

As to the logistics: first, I booked a room in Fairmont, as this was the place where the “shuttle” was supposed to take us to the pool. (Little did I know there would be no shuttle.) Further, there was the FINA reception and information desk, so I wanted to be close to the action. Big mistake! You don’t need to be “close to the action.” You will always be close enough when you swim. The action is in the pool. Needless to say, those who booked one subway stop from the islands — where the pools were located — were much better off.

The only non-stop flight from California to Montreal appeared to leave very early on Sunday. I could not be away more than four days. I booked the flight on Canadian Airlines. You always want to arrive several days before, especially if there is going to be any probability of jetlag – plus the “unknown factor” of going to another country or a place you have never been to before.

The next crucial error I made was over-packing. Perhaps it is in part due to my upbringing in a communist country, in part to my inexperience with traveling, but I packed three bags, and weighed each of them at home – to be just below the maximum allowed weight on the plane. I had a rucksack and two large bags, each just under 50 pounds. Can you imagine that? Little did I know how this would crush me: getting on and off the bus in Montreal, walking through airports, dragging it to the hotel and part of it even to the pool – all for what?

I like to be self-sufficient, have all I need with me, but this was simply over the top. Subsequently, I grumbled briefly on this injudicious mistake of mine in Montreal when I met with Dick Pound, the former vice-president of the IOC and president of WADA. I met the 1960 Olympian in his office on the 40th floor of the CBC building in the center of Montreal.

“When I was swimming,” Richard Pound replied, “we only needed a swimsuit.” He paused, smiling wisely, “I always thought that was one of the advantages of the sport.” Did he know I felt like an idiot at that moment? I wonder…

Of course, by the time I climbed up those steps from the bullpen to the blocks I could barely walk! I had no idea I could be cramping up in my shins and my forearms. I don’t think I ever have before. Mind you, I did bodybuilding, powerlifting, triathlon and giant slalom in my days! I don’t break down easy – but when I do, it’s brutal.

My $3,000 experience also included travelling in the city. If you go to a meet somewhere far away and invest in a hotel, don’t be a cheapskate like me and get a taxi. Furthermore, I started my first competition day by taking three buses to the nearby grocery to get orange juice and something to drink because, believe it or not, there was nothing in Fairmont and all stores were closed on Sunday when I arrived. I sweated as a rat in the hot and sultry weather. Then, it began to rain slightly but the sultriness remained. I am a tough cookie, thought I, and this would be a nice warm-up.

I glimpsed the Marriott just across the street from the supermarket – and probably also two or three stops closer to the competition pools, but the thought of carrying my stuff now and changing the hotels was not very attractive to me at that moment. I did not have enough time, either – it was probably three hours before my race – to which, all in all, I was still looking forward to. Of course, I did not know I was already filling up with lactic acid.

Also, I did not know I was going to spend the three next days sitting in dirt next to eight portable plastic toilets, without any running water or somewhere to wash my hands, hiding my oranges from ubiquitous fruit-flies. By the time I got to the pool, I was so exhausted that I just waited for the inevitable and hoped I would recover for the next day. No world records this time. At least we were all in the same pot, I thought.
But we weren’t. I made mine much deeper and hotter than anyone would imagine. I feel like an idiot even now, disclosing it all, but I hope it is for the greater good. I love our swimming community, feel the great “family affinity” throughout, and immensely admire all those older than I who had dragged their proud wet faces to Montreal to swim. I saw quite a few of them, even as they wheeled their trunks to and from the main pool. Maybe they have been in the same pot with me after all.

After day one’s defeat and disappointment, I went back to the hotel to take a hot shower and at least hope to sleep well during the night. The carpet was filthy, the programs on TV were horrid, and the hotel staff did not provide me with the fridge I requested. I emptied the minibar fridge and put my bananas in it. The minibar fridge locked itself and I spent the next hour figuring out the mechanism, pulling it out and wedging out the door, which I managed to do. Little did I know that there were sensors on all the items and by the time I took them out, the computer at the reception had already added all the items to my bill. I would end up paying for the use of the fridge for my “personal items.” Never again will I book with the Fairmont!

I threw the blanket on the filthy floor to do my stretching routine, tried to massage myself, and went to sleep. Not for long. Just as I was becoming pleasantly composed, a door slammed and someone stomped into the room above me like an elephant. I have these mental images imprinted in my head from my childhood: my mother slamming the doors on me, waking me up when I went to sleep and she thought I had no right to “just lie there and do nothing!”

I turned on the other side. Again, I was almost asleep when a series of noises had me wide awake: “Pop-pop-pop! Brrrr-bang! Bang-bang!” It was the ice machine across the hall. It was close to midnight. Never mind, I told myself, I’ll sleep longer tomorrow morning and won’t warm up. I will just do the race. I am exhausted anyway and warm-up might only do me harm.

Big mistake! First, I was up by 8:00 with the outrageously loud drill-and-bang on the outside wall. It was as if an army of men with pneumatic drills besieged the wall just outside my room and another army of workers was banging into it below with huge hammers. When I was small, we had this do-it-yourself neighbor who used to drill in the apartment above and bang on the wall all weekend. I would take a bike and spend the weekend in a forest in the wild. There was no escape at the Fairmont!

Raving mad, I ran outside my room and nearly knocked down the maid who was about to enter. “What’s this banging?!” I questioned. She smiled politely: “Room service.” Room service? It was only 8:00! I was in no mood for any service. I put the “do not disturb” sign on the door. In two hours, the phone was ringing. The front desk clerk wanted to know when I wanted my room cleaned. I left for the pool shortly after that. When I returned, there was a telephone message: “Urgent room service … tell us when.”

This happened during each of the four days I was there. On the third day, they simply “invaded” my room.

The second part of the mistake goes to the decision not to warm up. Of course, it goes against the grain of my experience, which says: Always warm-up! But who can think clearly under such stress?! Further, my experience had gathered 20-plus years of rust. Consequently, of course, I could not perform well on day two, either, and even though it was just a 50 fly, I went numb and stiff toward the end. Better tomorrow?

That evening, I tried to contact the lost-and-found at the Beri Center about the plastic bag with a brand new sweater and an expensive book I had left on the bus when getting off at Fairmont. It was my “handbag” on the plane, containing a few tidbits and, well, nothing terribly expensive, but it was a pain in the neck. Never take more pieces of luggage than you can observe and carry at one time. I spent another two hours trying to get it back on the day of my departure but never did.

On the final day, I hoped I would be more recovered. I decided to forego the warmup again, this time because of convenience. I felt like too much time and energy would be lost before my race. A very bad decision! Lactic acid needs to be flushed out and cramps stretched out. Further, do not be afraid to “scratch” a race. I swam both races that day, simply because I was taught from early childhood that I must always do as planned and ordered. You can hardly imagine the way we were treated in the Olympic Team “concentration camp” in the 1980s: No questions. Do it! The answer: Yes, Comrade Coach.

I am still sore when I think of my days in Montreal – sore all over, inside and out! To make my pain even more unbearable: I have a VIP Marriott Pass, which I had gotten during the Nationals in Santa Clara.

Yes, I am an idiot!

Sarah Condor-Fisher is the author of Swimming Workouts For Masters Swimmers. She helped start the Masters of Cerritos swim team in southern California and the 42-year-old began swimming Masters last year.

20 Comments

20 comments

  1. Marcia

    Oh, come on. You are a spoiled person. Every swimmer in the masters seimming world knows exactly how to prepare for a travel like this. You are being a baby.

  2. Adam

    I agree – I’m sorry, but this entire commentary is ridiculous. “The programs on TV were horrid, and the hotel staff did not provide me with the fridge I requested” …this entire article is so negative and self-centred, and screams #firstworldproblems. I can’t even believe this was published.

    • I did not express it clearly enough in the part you quote: the carpet was totally filthy, the dirt would also instantly rub into everything you placed on it, of course including your feet and socks. I think someone before me must have stomped around there in very dirty and wet shoes from outside. It’s really hard to imagine.

      As to the TV: it was permanently set on their advertising channel and always flipped back to it. It was unwatchable. The rear was blocked to prevent you from plugging in your own phone, for which I had purchased a special cable and did use it previously (with no problems) in Marriott.

      As to the fridge, when you request it one month ahead and rely on it, they promise it and you drag fresh fruit and vegetables with you only to find out there is none… It’s not just the money but the energy you spend dragging the stuff, not to mention the excess luggage on the plane. Compared to this, the Marriott (where I had stayed in Santa Clara) was like heaven!

      What is more, the air conditioning in Fairmont did not work at all, no matter how you set the temperature – it never changed. It was sultry, stuffy, filthy as a pigsty and cramped like a airplane bathroom. $10 cans and bottles peered at me from everywhere. There was no ceiling light either so I really found it hard to even sneak round the bed in the dark catacomb.

      I am still getting over it. I have received many emails and messages sharing my experience and my point of view. I really hope someone will have the courage to write a positive article for us, if only to make the sour aftertaste of our experience go away….

  3. Scott Spranklin

    To Swimming World Magazine,

    What a disappointment it is you chose to publish such an article. Masters swimming is about not only fitness and friends but a further opportunity to celebrate the sport of swimming through racing, and it doesn’t get any bigger than the FINA Worlds for Masters.

    And to Sarah, I hope you read this back and are embarrassed about what you have written and contributed to a SWIMMING website, yes swimming, this isn’t trip advisor. I hope your workouts are more informative and help swimming than this story did.

    I am embarrassed for both parties.

    • Marcia

      I read your comment nodding to every word. I had to hold myself when commeting because I was there, swam almost all races with this lady, so I met her and considered wise from me to restrain my rant to this piece posted here. There were problems, yes. But this article is completely absurd.

    • You are missing the point: a meet is an event in which you are to compete and try to win it. You have invested years of effort and energy, time and sacrifice, pain and passion, you gave it your all. You want everything to go perfect, to be there ready for you – so that your only concern need be your Achievement!
      Celebration may follow. Celebration is for Champions. If you are one, I commend you. I am a professional, always try to attain professional results, and expect the same from others.

  4. Unbelievable

    What a whiner! Pathetic that SW would publish this drivel. It was bad enough that we had to wade through her whiny Facebook posts on the FINA site prior to the event, now this BS. For anybody that assumed responsibility for themselves (read the published information), knows how to compete, and knows how to travel, FINA Montreal was a great experience.

  5. Yes, this experience is a whiner. I always abstain from negative comments – unless they can help others. Those who were not negatively impacted in any way and enjoyed the meet thoroughly are the “big boys and gals” out there and I admire you all. Please, write a wonderful contribution about it, the opinion of which shall be shared and universally extolled.

    Unfortunately, those of us who are not as experienced and had either travel or accommodation issues, or were taken aback by the way the meet was organized, we want to help each other share this expensive experience in order to improve and, perhaps, empathize. I guess we want to be like you, big guys and gals, hurt by nothing, beating world record times and winning podium limelight under the most adverse of circumstances…

    • Thomas

      How did you manage to book a flight on an airline that went out of business in 2001?

  6. Julia

    This is the worst story. If the hotel was so bad why didn’t you leave? No excuses and this just pissed me off. Stop complaining. There are worse problems in the world then you choosing not to “warm up.”

  7. Rick

    Okay all of us who are such harsh critics of our fellow swimmer’s literary efforts…please let’s all appreciate her efforts. She came to join us, and to compete…and to take the extra effort to later write something for us, for our education in our journal, or perhaps even for our entertainment. All of that is appreciated by this writer….and it is far more effort than most of us have done…. And let us remember, this is all In her second language no doubt, with no intent to harm, but to try (perhaps a bit awkwardly at times) to offer an opinion, that may perhaps teach others from her series of experiences.! How many of us would be able to do all effort, without some wrinkles and challenges in a distant new land and writings in one’s second language?

    To Sarah: Welcome to our sport here in the USA, and I hope that your next Swimming trip brings more success, fun, and happiness as your USA travel experience grows!

    :)

  8. Leigh-Ann

    I am very disappointed to see this article published. My family has travelled across the country on several occasions to national swim meets hosted by the Montreal swim community at the Jean Drapeau park pool and rowing basin. We have also travelled to venues around the world. While I was not at the Masters meet, I believe this is one of the most spectacular outdoor venues with an incredibly professional team of swim organizers. The city of Montreal has an extremely efficient train system for moving athletes and is a vibrant, exciting city with first rate accommodations for people of all budgets. Travelling for sport can have challenges but part of the experience is to embrace all that is good and exciting about the opportunities we are so lucky to enjoy. Thank you to all those wonderful people who have worked hard in Montreal and other venues around the world for the positive things you do to bring our community of swimmers together.

  9. Courtney

    Dear Princess Sarah—

    I might have expected to see such juvenile drivel as your travelog dashed onto a Blogspot site, but certainly not to Swimming World magazine. As a longtime athlete and writer, I’m appalled that this was published. Many of us would have appreciated such an opportunity to travel and meet other athletes from around the world, to compete on such a stage while seeing new places. You even admitted that you weren’t taking it seriously. News flash: Warming up before a FINA Masters Worlds race is important.

    Instead, you came across as a prima donna, prepped for a spa vacation with all the frills you demand and none of the reality that happens when you venture outside a sorority house. Welcome to the real world. How sad that you transitioned from communism without retaining appreciation for anything gained, or comprehension of what really qualifies as a “horror story”. So sorry you didn’t get to watch your preferred TV programs. You can retort all you wish about how we “missed your point”. But if we all missed your point, then you didn’t make your point well. As is said in Montreal: C’est la vie.

  10. Ion A. Beza

    I read the opening post by Sarah Condor-Fisher, and the entire thread.

    I haven’t competed in this World Masters, but I did in the past. I enjoyed the 2006 World Swimming Masters at Stanford, U.S..

    Regarding the 2014 one, in http://www.usms.org at:
    http://forums.usms.org/showthread.php?24336-Kudos-to-USMS-and-University-of-Maryland-GREAT-JOB!
    someone writes about the facility of the 2014 USMS Long Course Nationals this:
    “…First of all, the facility was amazing. Compared to Worlds, this was the Rolls Royce in aquatic facilities…”.
    I this thread, the statement “…I believe this is one of the most spectacular outdoor venues with an incredibly professional team of swim organizers…” regarding the Jean Drapeau complex, is off the base.
    I swam at this complex in the past.
    One doesn’t brush off “…Also, I did not know I was going to spend the three next days sitting in dirt next to eight portable plastic toilets, without any running water or somewhere to wash my hands, hiding my oranges from ubiquitous fruit-flies…”.

    Sarah is not “…a spoiled person…”, she doesn’t deserve the comment “…this entire commentary is ridiculous…”, or the comment “…And to Sarah, I hope you read this back and are embarrassed about what you have written and contributed to a SWIMMING website…”, or the attacks “…What a whiner!…” and “…Princess Sarah—I might have expected to see such juvenile drivel…” like written in this thread.

    “…If the hotel was so bad why didn’t you leave?…” is stupid: at the 2007 USMS Long Course Nationals in Woodlands, Texas, someone I knew proposed to me after the first day to move to her house during the trip for the rest of the meet, stay there for free and recover my money from my hotel -a good hotel in that instance-, to which I responded that a move then was too late and would break my concentration. Once in place, one does the best with what one finds there and sticks to the plan the best possible way, one doesn’t fidget around and tire further.

    Sarah Condor-Fisher wanted a professional quality in this meet and facilities -like a clean hotel room, fridge in the hotel room as promised and for what she planned carefully-.
    She hasn’t found them to be on par with lifelong expectations of quality and standards of efforts.
    I believe her.

  11. Ion A. Beza

    Also from the link I gave:

    http://forums.usms.org/showthread.php?24336-Kudos-to-USMS-and-University-of-Maryland-GREAT-JOB

    I would investigate this post about the 2014 World Masters:

    “…Now I can say, been there, done that, it’s off the bucket list. It was a culturally terrific, but relatively poor athletic experience. Anecdotally, some rare & special people seemed able to swim fast under those conditions, but most, it seemed, had a tough time hitting their seed times. It was a lot of walking & quite tiring! It would be interesting to know what fraction of people swam equal to or faster than their seed times.”

  12. Fellow Masters

    This year was my first time competing in a Masters World Championships, but I competed internationally and nationally for many years (in my previous swimmer life!) and my experience in Montreal was just as good, both athletically and culturally as any other meet I have attended. I thought the FINA website was very helpful when coming to accommodations and travel plans. I thought the meet was well organized and the venue was among some of the best I have been to. In my experience, having two competition pools and a consistently available warm-up/warm-down pool is always a plus!!!! The train system was excellent and allowed for hardly any walking (unless you wanted to add more walking by doing touristy things, which I did myself) if that was your plan for the competition. Even with the secondary pool being farther away, proper planning would allow for you to arrive at the main pool to warm-up and rest there before going over to the secondary pool for your swim (no dirt sitting or temporary toilet smelling necessary!). The FINA website had a pretty accurate timeline of every event and the main competition pool kept updates on the progress of both pools throughout the day (so you could plan your day accordingly – I was able to sleep in every day!). As a well-traveled athlete, it is expected for things not always to go to plan and to be able to go with the flow of all possible disruptions (don’t be picky when you eat!!!!). And by no means would I consider myself one of the “big boys and gals” winning medals or breaking records, but I dropped all of my times (I swam 5 events plus a relay) and had an excellent experience. Maybe my past experiences helped me overcome some of the difficulties, but I think a lot of it is attitude and what you let get to you when you are competing. Expect the unexpected and be able to compete in any and all conditions was what I was taught!!!!

  13. mary

    When I first read the article, I was amazed Swimming World published it.it became clear that this swimmer did not have a good time:)..did not swim well, travel well, sleep well, or eat well..travel to these meets is expensive, so I hope that she learned from her mistakes, and that her next trip will be more rewarding..and we can all be spared from another rant…

  14. Ion A. Beza

    “…her mistakes…”?

    This thread is about the 2014 World Masters’ mistakes.

    • Marie

      The only mistake mentioned here that would be FINA’s fault is the temporary pool set up, which admittedly was frustrating. Everything else is about how she didn’t bother to warm up, overpacked, can’t figure out airline schedules or complaints about the hotel she didn’t bother to leave. It seems like she wrote this for her own ego.

  15. Carl Sorenson

    I can’t believe the number people who wondered why this article was published. When is a person not allowed to express and publish something that is less than positive? Is there freedom of expression in this country or are the people wishing the article wasn’t published from the same restrictive mindset as those from her former government? If your experience was different from hers, great. But there is no reason to condemn her expressing the less-than-positive aspects of the meet. Many people who attended the meet wrote to FINA expressing similar issues. The set-up was not ideal and could have been much better. How do these things get better unless the attendees complain? If you didn’t like her tone, okay, but to deny her right to write what she did is absurd. The harshness of the responses surprises me as well. The article was not only truthful but also funny. To the person who claimed they were “first-world problems” she was addressing, yes, of course they are. This is a masters meet in Canada. Anyone who attended it has money to train, to travel, and to take time off work, as well as buy tech suits, pay for plane tickets, hotels, etc. Any problems anyone had at Worlds were first-world problems. Does that make it an illegitimate concern? I did not find her to be a whiner. She was trying to express her experience and infuse it with some humor. Lighten up people and try to be a little less judgmental.

Author: Jeff Commings

Jeff Commings is the host of several shows on SwimmingWorld.TV, including "The Morning Swim Show," which features interviews with people making headlines in aquatic sports. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism and was a nine-time NCAA All-American.

Current Swimming World Issue


Trouble Viewing on Smart Phones, Tablets or iPads? Click Here