Feature by Tyler Remmel
HARTLAND, Wisconsin, August 2. DURING the summers, my articles have focused on anecdotes that were used to draw attention to larger points, issues or trends. Often, they would assume that these anecdotes were commonplace. This feature is a bit different, though. Throughout the piece, I will take you into my head while we're on the road; I'm writing in the present tense, but as this appears on the web, these events will be in the past.
Road Trip to Iowa City Sectionals
The road trip is a quintessential part of championship swimming for senior swimmers. In my six-year career, a four-hour-plus interstate drive to a sectional meet seems normal, even a necessity. Everything about the trip itself – getting away from home, going to a new pool (or one I haven't been to in a while), even escaping from the parents – makes the destination feel like a championship environment.
I can't count how many times that I've been on an extended trip to a meet, and I haven't even been swimming for very long. Between the college, club, and high school seasons, I've been on trips in 15-passenger vans, coach buses, school buses and mini-vans. And as different as the circumstances have been for all those different means of transportation, there's been one thing that was constant: I was always traveling with a group.
On this trip, however, I purposely avoided that. As I'm putting my fingers to the keys on my MacBook, I'm in the passenger seat of a Honda Civic headed straight to Iowa City. Cody Roller (a college and club teammate) and I are on our way to the University of Iowa for the long course sectional meet that begins a day from now.
Subsequently, our coach and the rest of our Lake Country Phoenix teammates are on their way as well. They're living out what I think is the stereotypical swimming road trip, in a two-car convoy of a 15-passenger van and a mini-van. Besides the unusually small group that our team has traveling to the meet, everything about the trip should be perfectly usual for them.
Our goal was to make it different, though. Cody and I are the only male college swimmers that came back to swim for Lake Country. Collectively, we're two years older than the next eldest traveling Lake Country swimmer. We've got a slight case of the "I'm sick of club swimming" bug that pervades college swim teams everywhere. We still love swimming for Lake Country, but there's just a point where we need to spread our wings a bit.
Not only are we not traveling with the team, but we've also got separate accommodations when we reach our destination. We've signed all the same team travel consent forms and waivers, et cetera, and everything we do at the pool will be with our team. We're on our own for everything else, though.
Well, sort of. Actually, the main reason for our separate travel and lodging is because we're meeting up with my college roommate, Hueston Holder, at our destination. Hueston lives in Iowa, and is the only swimmer from his team at the meet. With the exception of a short airport layover last month, we haven't seen Hueston since we left Ashland, Ohio, the first week in May.
We'd been planning this sectional rendezvous since early spring of this year. We figured that it was a perfect chance (and probably the only chance) for us three out-of-staters to come together during the summer. Originally, the plan was for us to find the cheapest hotel we could find in Iowa City, and make the trip as cheap as possible; after all, we are penny-pinching college students.
Midway through the summer, though, Hueston texted me saying that his parents have a motor home. He said we were more than welcome to stay in it with him and his folks. The frugal college student in me saw this as a golden opportunity to cut out the most expensive part of the trip. The kid in me saw it as a golden opportunity for an awesome meet experience.
For years, I have seen motor homes parked outside of the Walter Schroeder Aquatic Center for meets, and I've always wondered what it would be like to stay in one. I always thought it would be really convenient, but I also thought it was something I'd never get to do myself.
Since we began driving two hours ago, I haven't really been thinking about that part though. I've been completely enjoying this drive, taking in every minute. I've never actually been this way before, so I am loving the scenic rolling hills and open rock faces of southwestern Wisconsin. Every chance I get, I'm pausing this story to take out my Canon AE-1 Program (for non-camera folk, it's an ‘80s 35mm camera) to take shots of the landscape. At this point, I estimate that I'll go through at least a 24-exposure roll of film before we get to Iowa City; good thing that I packed four for the trip.
Every now and then, we'll take 30 seconds to sing along with Cody's iPod. Never before have I been so carefree on a travel trip before. It's a welcome change from the usual, especially since I've been looking forward to this meet for longer than I've even realized (I'll get into that in a bit).
The usual mindset for me on a travel trip revolves endlessly in a loop of nervousness and excitement, which unfortunately build upon each other. As I go through my races in my head, I get nervous. As I think about them more, it changes to excitement. With every unintended visualization, the time on my imaginary scoreboard goes down. Consequently, my level of nervousness also rises again. After a few iterations of this cycle, I'm almost psyching myself out for my races before I'm even at the pool.
Often times, I'll have to focus on eating for the meet a week in advance. When I'm at the meet, I can't stomach much more than the Gatorade and water that my body needs to avoid dehydration. I'll put it this way: I have a weak stomach when it comes to nervousness.
It's perfect though. Everything that I wanted this trip to be, it already is.
I'll toss out the near-cliché quote of advice here, "If you want to change your life, you have to make changes."
Pursuit of THE Cut
And this is where the "looking forward to this meet for longer than I can remember" part. It seems like one of those points where my whole swimming career has been leading up to this point: at this sectional meet, I'm aiming to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Trials. In my repetitive ladder of getting one cut and transitioning to the next level of cut, I've reached the theoretical end-of-the-line (Yes, making the Olympic team is at least one rung up from making it to Trials, but in terms of meet qualification on the basis of a time standard, Trials is the top).
Since 2008, when I hadn't a shot in a million at making it to Omaha, I've had the 100 breaststroke qualifying time written on my dry erase board: now 1:04.69. It was always my ultimate goal, but it was also something that I'd only dreamt of. Honestly, when I first wrote that time on my board, 1:04 was really, really fast. I was so far off that I couldn't tell if that time was even humanly possible.
Then, one year later with the help of my BlueSeventy bodysuit, I went 1:05.38 at this same sectionals meet.
In the months following, the body suits were banned. I didn't realize how much they helped until the following summer of 2010. All summer, I tapered on what seemed like a weekly basis, trying to drop .09 to get the summer nationals cut in that 100 breast. I figured that all it would take is a best time.
Without rehashing my entire life story, I'll just say that I started swimming at a late age, as a freshman in high school. As such, I became accustomed to having a best time with almost every swim. Even from season to season, I was able to top my best tapered times with ease. I didn't know what it was like to be in a plateau, I didn't know what it was like to swim and not have a best time for a while. When I was just begging for a single best time in that event, I couldn't do it.
This summer was different, though. Two weeks ago, I went a best time in that 100 breast unshaved and un-tapered; completely out of nowhere. All of a sudden, that 1:04.69 was within reach.
Before we left, I was already becoming nervous about going for it. When I was packing yesterday, I was jumping around with the taper squirreliness of a child. I did more rolling around last night than I did sleeping.
If I weren't writing this, though, I wouldn't be thinking about swimming at all, though, which is just what I need. This drive is letting me just hang loose and get away from the world. Bobbing my head to some Eminem and singing along with the cast of Glee is just so much fun.
It's perfect. Of all the swimming advice that I've received over the years, none has proven more true to me than this: fun swimming is fast swimming. It's game over if you're not having fun; just ask Jeff Commings.
When I first thought about writing this story, I wanted to talk about everything that was going through my head along the drive. I thought I would struggle to organize all my thoughts, since my brain is so used to racing all along the way. Retrospectively, it was silly of me to think that would be the case. After all, like I said before, the goal of this whole meet was to change the circumstances in order to change the results.
When you go on to the next section, I will be on the road on my way home. Hopefully, I will have reached the top of the ladder.
Oh So Close
With as much as I've realized that I just generally dislike the state of Iowa (and Cody and I have curated quite the repertoire of jokes to boot), there's a slight bittersweet taste that leaving the state leaves in my mouth. Or maybe that taste is left over from sitting in the steam room at the pool – I guess I can't be sure.
Nope, it does actually feel good to be on the way home.
It doesn't really matter how well you swim at a meet, when you're so far away from home and you aren't sleeping in your own bed, each day makes you wake up and say to yourself, "I need to go home. Right now."
For the record, I did swim well. I missed the Trials cut that I was so eagerly awaiting, but I'm now within .30 of it, which is closer than I was before. I was almost happier to end my winning streak in second-100-breast swims at this meet (I've taken ninth two years in a row). I took fourth, and happened to score the only points for our men's team in the meet.
On the way here, I thought about how atypical this meet was in comparison to sectional meets that I've swam at in the past. And, as it turns out, I've discovered that the trip home still feels the same as always.
I wish I could speak from my own perspective on the effect that driving to the meet every day has, but I lucked out because Cody is driving.
He has a more realistic view; to put it lightly, Cody did not enjoy having to drive.
"It got a little annoying with the traffic…and the [terribly timed] lights," he said. "I disliked a lot about it."
Without having a "normal" meet to compare it too, traffic seemed to be generally terrible to and from the meet each day. Our travel time could range anywhere from 15 minutes all the way to 30. As it turns out, engineers in Wisconsin managed to create stoplights that are timed. It's nearly impossible in most metro areas to hit every single light.
In Iowa, for whatever reason, it seemed like we hit every one of the stoplights on each one-way trip. I never counted, but there had to be at least 25 stoplight-controlled intersections on the commute. One time, I think we did actually hit every one.
Right now, Cody has the car in cruise control traveling up U.S. Highway 151. Every red light that we hit all week made him more eager to click the cruise on once again. He seems to be more at peace with the world in his driver's seat than he has been as of recent.
It's worth mentioning that Cody and I have become used to having a scratchy throat and smoker-like cough on our trips home from travel meets. The University of Minnesota's pool has a notoriously terrible air-quality, and compounding hours on deck take a toll on the lungs. I'm no scientist, but our coaches have told us that it's a buildup of chloramines that cause this reaction.
Our home pool at Arrowhead High School has a history of high chloramine levels as well, but because our exposure there is short term, it really only affects us during practice. For instance, we might have to take a five-minute break at the end of a set and go outside to get fresh air.
At a championship meet with preliminary heats and finals, we are losing a considerable amount of sleep by the last night because of the chloramines. You could probably make a deranged song out of the hacking, coughing, and sneezing. Sometimes we cough so hard it feels like you might hack up a lung and die. Truth is, though, I'm sort of used to it by now, which makes it a little easier.
Hueston, on the other hand, was not. This is the first time that he's ever really been affected by low-air quality at a pool. Last night, the three of us collectively thought that he was dying. His eyes were watery and running, his nose was making him sneeze ten times consecutively, and he'd have the breath for a few coughs in between.
If you have never been penned up in a natatorium with high chloramine levels, you almost feel sick because of the exposure, or like you have a bad case of allergies. The only thing that tells you otherwise is when you get better within a day or two of being at home.
As for swimming at the pool, it feels like you're at altitude, and like you just can't get a full breath. I've never actually swum at altitude, but I have to imagine that this is what it feels like.
We're only an hour outside of Iowa City, but I'm already feeling better breathing the fresh air in the car. Cody and I are still coughing, but we probably will be until Tuesday. Better isn't best, but it's better than bad.
It's unfortunate, really. I loved the pool that the University of Iowa built, it's just a shame that the airflow engineers seemed to have missed their mark. I can't imagine that it's easy to keep clear air flowing with 600 athletes on deck, but the air was poor when we arrived Wednesday. It wasn't nearly as bad at Minnesota has been, but again, that's relative.
On the drive down, I noticed only one helicopter that was spraying a cornfield. Already, I've seen two small planes buzzing over the crops – and right over our heads. If I was driving, I'm sure I would be a bit unnerved by the planes flying right toward the car at low-altitude. Apparently, it's a popular thing in this state for farmers to own a crop-dusting plane. I guess that would explain why the local arena football team is called the Iowa Barnstormers.
Now that the meet is over, I have to face the fact that I have a summer class that begins Monday, French II. I meant to review my French I materials before it begins, during this trip. That never happened, nor is it going to between here and home. Sleeping does sound good though.
If you wanted to draw this into some bigger story, I think that would be a good way to summarize it. Road trips make swimmers sleepy. Fact.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'd like to make these last few hours fitting of a typical swimming road trip. So, goodnight!
FINALLY! Made the Cut!
It's been a week since I returned from Iowa City now. On that trip home – as you may have determined – I found a way of detaching myself from my swimming. Well, that detachment held through until the end of the week, and through my final meet of the summer: the Wisconsin 13 & Over LCM Championships.
Due to a conflict with that French class I mentioned earlier, I was unable to participate in the Thursday and Friday prelims of the meet. And due to the fact that my normal three-day taper had turned into nearly three weeks leading into the meet, a smaller event program seemed the only hope I would have for surviving my shortened meet. Finally, with the history of my lackluster swims on over-taper, I figured there was no hope of swimming well.
My one and only goal prior to the meet was to have fun. As long as I accomplished that, I was willing to call it a successful meet.
Friday finals came around, and I swam a leg on the 4×100 freestyle relay. The swim felt strong and smooth at the time, and I was astounded to have gone 53.7 (1.5 seconds faster than my 100 free best time from Iowa City). I texted a few coaches, telling them something to the extent of, "53.7 100 free on a relay. Might have two more shots at Trials."
You see, I had mentally considered my season to be over before we left Iowa City. I even called coach Paul Graham and began discussing long course meet opportunities that would fall during the upcoming NCAA season.
I slept on that relay split, and woke up the next morning tired and not looking forward to a long day at the pool. Judging from the timeline, I could see that there was a three-hour discrepancy between the 9 a.m. prelim start and the 12:18 start of the men's 100 breast. I groaned, and figured that going out for a good breakfast would be the best way to pass the time.
Teammate Brent Schreibel and myself went to a local diner (the stereotypical breakfast location, run by a Greek family with a seven-page breakfast menu) to buy some time and some food. I gorged on Polish sausage, toast, hash browns and scrambled eggs. Needless to say, we didn't take as long as we'd hoped to eat: it was only 9:45 after paying the check. Of course, there was a Dollar Tree in the adjacent strip mall – and that's where we went.
We walked out of the store with $3 worth of temporary tattoos (packs of tribal, glow-in-the-dark and princess tattoos) and a concept of how ridiculous we might look after using them all up. We got back to the pool and went to the locker rooms to cut them out and put them on. An hour later, we weren't yet finished and we realized that there was only half an hour until we swam (both of us were in the 100 breast), and neither of us had our suits on yet.
I was nervous for the race only for the reason that I was so short on time. Plus it was hot at the Walter Schroeder Aquatic Center, which meant I was sweating, which also meant that putting on my size 26 was even more difficult than usual.
Somehow, I managed to make everything work and get behind the blocks before my race. I could see that there were the usual slow times in the morning heats, and I wasn't really worried about making it back for a second swim (I'm not that cocky, but I was the second seed, the defending state champion, and I can't remember the last time that I wasn't top-8 at this meet). I just wanted to make the morning swim as comfortable as possible. And even though I was rushed, even though I didn't care about my time that much, I had to remember to have fun. So I let out a loud craw toward the team bench (an inside joke, but something that must have commanded some awkward looks from the crowd and swimmers).
I hit the water and felt amazing. I was sitting very high in the water and was able to keep my stroke really long through the first 50. I went out in 19 strokes for a 30.35 split, which is exactly where I needed to be. Coach Tom Coons has been telling me all season that my first 50 meters is always my strength, though; my last 10 strokes are the weak part of my race. That very relaxed first 50 made for that near perfect second 50. I took 24 strokes on the way back, splitting 33.95.
1:04.30 was on the board. I was amazed, because I was expecting to see a high-1:05 or low-1:06 at best. I played around and managed to get my Trials cut.
In the locker room afterward, I ran into Tom Miazga. He asked me, "How does it feel to have the monkey off your back?"
I didn't know what it felt like to have a monkey on my back. I never got to the point where I had any sort of monkey on my back, not at this meet at least. Some things just come when you least expect them.
Not just that, though. Having the cut out of the way, I was free to mess around as much as I wanted in finals. My only goal left was to defend that title, and even that wasn't something I wanted to do seriously.
During the week between sectionals and state, my teammates and I joked around about how "You Make My Dreams," by Hall and Oates, (from (500) Days of Summer) would make a great walkout song. The meet management wasn't allowing the top seeds to pick their respective songs, though. A little saddened but not about to give up, I went up to the announcer's table with a $10 bill in my pocket and asked if they would play the song for my march. They agreed and I didn't even need to bribe them.
I went crazy on that march. If I didn't know the others in my heat so well, they may have thought I was the cockiest guy at the meet. I jumped and danced in tandem – and across the pool – from teammate Cody Roller for the entire march. My legs were borderline aching when it was over and I actually had to swim. And again, as if it didn't matter at all, I still ducked under the cut with that finals swim, finishing in 1:04.42.
And as if it's like a perfect segue into the next story that I will write for Swimming World – a piece on comebacks – I took the advice of fellow breaststroker Brendan Hansen and just had fun with it. There really is some sort of mystical power of having fun. Fun swimming is usually fast swimming. And fast swimming is always fun, which makes for a great cycle of confidence.