Finally Grasping “There Is No ‘I’ In Team”

Michael Phelps, swimmer

By Julia Cunningham, Swimming World College Intern

When did swimming become a sport? It certainly didn’t start that way. My earliest memories of swimming revolve around the people.

I was so excited to have a mass play date everyday after school for two hours, or, at that age it was probably closer to an hour. We’d stand behind our lane and try to push each other in without getting caught. When we had no other choice we’d get in the pool and shiver so much that we got more exercise from the time between laps than the few actual laps we did.

“I definitely remember that in age group swimming your lane mates were people you always talked with and goofed off with,” Julia Wieczorek, a junior at Vassar College said. “Maybe you were talking when the coach was talking or you were trying to touch the bottom of the pool with your teammates…and that was very age-group.”

Swimming was a time to socialize and giggle and splash each other and do everything in our power to make our coach roll her eyes and tell us it was time for starts, or even better, relays. Our lane mates were our closest confidants and our best friends. Swimming didn’t start as a sport; it started as a way to make friends.

Somewhere in there the work began to payoff, and suddenly things got a little competitive. We were no longer all best friends. Sleepovers got a little more selective. It probably didn’t help that puberty and speed entered the picture around the same time. Practices became a chance to compare yourself to the person swimming next to you, the people in front or behind you, or even better– a chance to humiliate the guys. Whoever got their hand on the wall first was the fastest person on the team. Whoever showed up to the most practices had the most potential when it came to meets.

Brooke Stenstrom(Winner)(Lane5)+LeahHatayama(Lane4)_200BreastFinals_Handshake

Photo Courtesy: Nicholas McMillan

We all know that’s not how it happened. The person sprinting every set often found themselves falling short at meets. Or somehow, that person who came three out of seven or eight practices couldn’t be touched. Lane mates became a way to test yourself. Was Jane suddenly on a faster interval? Did Janet just drop three seconds? Did Jill just beat Bob? Why weren’t you doing the same? You wanted to be the lane leader. If you weren’t first, you were last (to quote Talladega Nights).

But then your swimming career really exploded. Suddenly, high school started and later college. Lane mates took on an entirely new meaning.

You end up grouped together by intervals, so sometimes the only people you’ll talk to throughout a practice are your lane mates or those immediately around you,” Wieczorek explained. “Just because you train with them more, I think you know them better. You always know how they’re going to perform in the pool.” You begin to know your lane mates’ splits as well as your own.

You begin to understand the implications of the word “team,” and the fact that “There is no ‘I’ in team” becomes less of a cliche and more of a mantra. In 2008, Cullen Jones was part of the relay that was expected to be the “weak link” when it came to Michale Phelps’s push for eight gold medals.

“This was the one relay they were expecting us not to win, but for us to pull it out it was amazing,” Jones said in an interview with HNGN. “When we were in the huddle getting ready to swim that race it wasn’t about ‘We gotta win this because I’m trying to go for eight’ it was about how are we gonna pull this off as Team USA,” he said of Phelps. “I mean anybody could have sat back and made it about themselves, but he was all about Team USA.”


Photo Courtesy: Maddie Kyler

Suddenly swimming was no longer an individual – each man for him or herself – sport. Suddenly swimming was a team sport. You scored points as a team, you worked together as a team, you trained as a team. Your lane mates were still your competition, but now they were there to push you to be your best. You learned how to become best friends with your lane mates again.

“You’re not afraid to be mean to each other, but at the same time it’s very easy to say ‘Okay, I respect what this person’s going to do, and I’m going to let them go ahead of me because maybe I’m not performing as well as them right now, but in another set I will be,’” Wieczorek said. Respect for each other’s goals came with the bond of staring at each other’s feet for hours. “It’s kind of a trust factor that they’re going to treat you with the same respect that you treat them with.”

Teammates push you to be your best in every situation. They are there to motivate you and cheer you on. “There’s a certain pride that you have when you see your lane mates doing really well in a meet or in practice,” Wieczorek said. “You may even be prouder of them than your other teammates because you were there to watch that happen or you helped them through that.”

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  1. Johnny Karnofsky

    Swimming is a team sport built on individual performances.

  2. Julia Grace

    And I wouldn’t have such great things to say without my lanemates: Kyle Gray, Luke Morrison, Isaiah Hale, and Ian LaBash ?

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