By Tito Morales
LONG BEACH, Calif., July 10 IN just a few short days, it’s already become a magnificent little tradition here at the Charter All Digital Aquatics Centre.
Each evening, as the many thousands of eager spectators settle into their seats before the start of the session, master of ceremonies John Naber pays special tribute to the athletes’ family members and friends.
“How many of you are related to or know someone who’s going to be swimming here tonight?” Naber asks, his voice booming through the immense temporary complex.
A show of hands begins to go up, but that’s not even close to being good enough. Not for Naber. Not for someone who remembers what it was like to compete at this most elite of levels.
Naber coaxes them to their feet. He encourages them to wave and cheer. He wants them to truly savor an all-too-fleeting moment of public acknowledgement.
Behind every champion swimmer is a champion support group.
Parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, boyfriends, girlfriends, aunts, uncles, teammates, and best friends, the list goes on and on…
These are the true unsung heroes of these Trials.
They’re easy to spot here, these most cherished of supporters, even in the ponderously-tall bleachers which seem to extend to the bottom edge of the clouds.
Some wear matching pink or yellow t-shirts. Others unfurl brightly-colored banners or wave hand-painted signs which tug at the heart.
You can hear their screeches of encouragement whenever their favorite athletes ready themselves behind the blocks. You can feel the piercing shrill of their whistles as the race nears culmination. And you can sense the sincerity behind their cries of “Nice swim” and “Good job” as these same battle-worn swimmers struggle to regain their breath while making the long 50 meter trek back to the warm-up pool.
They have traveled from near and far to be here, these dedicated supporters. They have come to say they care. And to show their appreciation for the many years of hard work. And to offer their unflagging devotion — no matter what the results.
For many, particularly the parents, it’s been this way since the very beginning.
Each of our country’s most talented swimmers were once fledgling age groupers who struggled to master the rhythm of the breaststroke and the butterfly.
Each had parents who religiously made themselves available to ferry their diminutive dreamers to the most unremarkable of meets, held in the most nondescript of pools, which were invariably located in the most unexceptional of towns.
Reaching these Trials has been a rollercoaster of a journey for our country’s most talented swimmers. Each rise in the track has been matched by a dip; each smooth straightaway has no doubt been tempered by unexpected curves.
But no amusement park ride ever contains just one seat.
And one of the truly inspiring things to have witnessed during the last several days of competition is that the great majority of swimmers in this sport, like Naber, get it.
One of the first things the swimmers do once they’ve touched the wall and noted their time, is squint toward the bleachers. Still exhausted from their effort, they often smile, wave, and send back the affection as best they can.
At the Oscars or Emmies, the award winners are quick to thank their managers and agents. On the golf course and tennis court, they’re forever tipping their caps to their sponsors. But in this sport, our athletes invariably first thank their parents and loyal supporters.
Can there be anything more refreshing?