A Life Without Swimming? New York Reflections from Golden Goggles

By Shoshanna Rutemiller

PHOENIX, Arizona, November 21. WHILE attending USA Swimming's Golden Goggles awards ceremony, I found myself sitting next to the only person in attendance that didn't know how to swim. In between bites of filet mignon, the petite Miss New York, Elizabeth Tam, confessed that she has never donned the infamous cap, goggles and lycra suit trio. My face must have betrayed my reaction, because she quickly rationalized her lack of watery relations.

“Growing up in the city, where could I have learned to swim? The Hudson and East Rivers are too cold, the beaches are too far, and people just don't go to public pools.”

I poked around my plate for several extended seconds, thinking about what I had just heard. She doesn't know how to swim. My childhood put reality to the phrase “sink or swim.” The hub of my community was the local swim club, where I found my best friend and first crush. My brain's memory bank is practically pickled from chlorine.

And yet, here I sat at the biggest post-Olympic event for USA Swimming, next to a young woman who couldn't point out the differences between an illegal breaststroke kick and straight-arm freestyle.

While standing behind the illuminated podium, erected in front of the Golden Goggles crowd of over 800 guests, 2012 Olympic Team Captain Brendan Hansen said, “A coach once told me that you don't pick swimming, swimming picks you.”

In my experience, the sport of swimming trickles through families, flowing downstream from parents to children. It feeds out like tributaries from family to family, as young parents confer about where to take their toddlers for their first swim lessons. Swim lessons lead to summer rec programs, which lead to YMCA or club teams, high school swimming and ultimately a life connected to the sport.

Perhaps my personal experience with the sport is idealized. If Miss New York had an initial connection with swimming, I doubt she would be sitting next to me discussing the possibilities of enrolling in a swim clinic for young adults (hopefully taught by Michael Phelps, she added).

But further still, I lamented that she would never know the mental and physical strain of pushing through two-hour-plus workouts written like the scrambled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, to be ultimately pieced together into miles of yardage. She would never understand what it means to scribble out a list of goals at the beginning of a season, and achieve them at the end. She would never experience the joy for both coach and swimmer when set goals are accomplished.

Michael Phelps' long-time coach, Bob Bowman, was awarded the Golden Goggle Coach of the Year honors against a formidable class of elite coaches. In his acceptance speech, he addressed Phelps directly, saying, “It's good to be your coach, but it's even better to be your friend.”

Because in the end, although swimming is considered an individual sport (believe me, no one will swap laps for pudding packs around the lunch room table), it takes a village to mold a successful swimmer. In the process of creating an incredible athlete, people become personally invested in that swimmer's career. It's a sport that recognizes talent, but honors hard work.

Not a single athlete on the US Olympic team got where they are without a combination of both talent and hard work. It takes a special person to remain focused on a single goal for four years, especially when that goal could easily slip away by a mere fingernail.

Sitting at my table, opposite the water-illiterate Miss New York, was Aimee Berg, a freelance journalist who has spent a decade covering Olympic events.

“What I have trouble understanding is what goes in to actually winning at the Olympics. How does the Chinese swimmer plan his event differently from the US Swimmer in the lane next to him? Or do they do it the same, but other factors contribute to winning gold?”

I've been thinking about this concept ever since she planted its seed in my head. What makes an Olympic Champion? It's commitment, razor-sharp focus and a team of coaches, volunteers, executives and teammates that go into making a champion. And, as we all learned after seeing Team USA's Call me Maybe video, never losing the element of fun!

The Golden Goggles awards ceremony gives USA Swimming the opportunity to honor the hard work of athletes and coaches. But really, it showcases a bigger love for a sport that touches so many people at so many levels.

Although Miss New York revealing she couldn't swim came as a shock, it also helped me to realize how thankful I am to have a lifetime of memories around the sun-bleached pool deck. Thank you swimming, I'll give cheers to the sport around the Thanksgiving table tomorrow.

Contact the author on Twitter @SJRutemiller
or through e-mail ShoshannaR@swimmingworld.com