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.