Last Stand on Land

TUCSON, Arizona, April 23. THE newest NCAA-record holder Annie Chandler of Arizona submitted the following article to Swimming World as part of her degree program. We are honored to be able to publish such a great piece by one of our sport's top performers.

Don't forget, if you would like to be published by Swimming World as part of your degree requirements, or are interested in a variety of swimmer-friendly internships, please contact us at Newsmaster@swimmingworldmagazine.com. We'd love to find a way to help enhance the learning process for our collegiate swimmers.

Last Stand on Land; By Annie Chandler

The swimming official blows his whistle, signaling to the heat that it's time to step up. I inhale deeply and climb the single-stepped ladder up to my starting block.

So many emotions rush through a swimmer's head before stepping onto a starting block. It is stepping upon the block where a swimmer starts the race. The crowd's cheers at certain venues can be enough to shake the starting block. Then, the comfortable quiet of your home pool's starting blocks can put your body at ease. Your starting block can be a launch pad to greatness or a plank to walk.

The largest starting blocks are 2 feet wide and nearly 3 feet long. With 18 inches between the block's top and the water's surface, the starting swimmer is guaranteed some hang time. At the pinnacle of the sport, a starting block will have a non-slip coat that is like sandpaper, so densely textured that a swimmer's feet will almost stick to the rough surface. These blocks are not made for comfort, but the best swimmers feel right at home atop them.

Elise Peters, 11, has been swimming for two years and is still uneasy on the starting block. Peters has the mature ability to blot out noise when she steps up on the block, but has had trouble containing her adrenaline.

"I have a tendency to shake. The bigger the meet, the harder I shake," Peters said.

Peters let her shakes get the best of her on one occasion. She toppled into the water early resulting in a false start.

But with more experience comes steadier footing.

My start is grounded in my experiences built on starting blocks across the world. But my confidence stems from the countless hours spent tweaking my start under the Arizona sun. I wriggle my toes to inch my right foot up to the edge of the block and get familiar with the block's grainy texture on the soles of my feet. The decibels inside the natatorium may be deafening, but like Peters, my ears process no sound.

Matt Grevers, 2008 Olympic gold and silver medalist, remembers one particular moment on the starting block better than the rest. It was preliminaries of the 400 freestyle relay at the Olympic Games and his split in the race would decide if he would be on the relay in finals. Grevers was set to anchor the relay in the morning.

Every coach and every guy on the preliminary relay had the same words reverberating in their heads. Don't false start.

Remember, on top of representing the U.S., every swimmer on every relay in 2008 was part of history as Michael Phelps broke Mark Spitz's record for most gold medals in a single Olympics. You don't want to be the guy that messed that up with a bad start.

Grevers followed Cullen Jones with his eyes as he grounded his feet and his heart leapt. At this moment, everything slowed down for Grevers.

The Unites States cheering section was going nuts as Grevers suddenly shook his nerves, and recognized, "I'm swimming for the United States of America on a relay."

Grevers had seen making the Olympic team as pure luck, but on the blocks in Beijing he recognized how he had ended up there. It was no fluke.

"Finally I felt I belonged there…racing the best in world," Grevers said.

Grevers had the opportunity to seize the long-awaited glory that comes with the Olympic Games. Being on that starting block did not scare him. It's the spotlight he trains for and lives for.

"Being on the block is home for us. We've been there so many times, won so many battles, why would I be uncomfortable up there?"

Grevers found his position on the sticky, blue block. He felt stable.

Grevers helped the US team to a world record in the preliminaries and locked the relay into a fast lane beside France for the finals. American Jason Lezak later delivered the most spectacular anchor leg in swimming history, overcoming the highly-favored French men, to earn all preliminary and finals relay members Olympic gold.

Grevers took his surroundings in before rocketing off the starting blocks.

But Jean Basson, a 2008 South African Olympian, shuts out his surroundings as soon as his feet hit the block's coarse surface.

Basson queues his internal voice to instill last minute confidence.

"I'm ready to go. This is my race to do what I want. No one can stop me."

Basson swam the 200 meter freestyle at the Olympics, and approached the start just as a vehicle to get from land to water. With 200 meters being the shortest distance Basson swims, the start is rarely the deciding factor of his races.

"It (the start) allows me to get to what I do best," Basson said.

Basson's last-minute words on the block and his quick trip into the water propelled him to a fourth-place finish at the Olympic Games.

After my toes have a snug grip on the edge of the block, I bend over and cement the ball of my left foot to the surface of the block. My arms drape below my shoulders allowing my hands to dangle in front of the edge of the block. Here I wait. Sometimes it feels like 2 seconds, other times more like 20. In reality it's around 7 seconds before the starter speaks robotically into the microphone, "take your mark."

Nicolas Nilo competed in the 2008 Olympic Games for Brazil, but he has never felt more alert on the block than he did at the 2009 World Swimming Championships in Rome, Italy.

It was the semifinal of the 100 freestyle. There were two heats. Nilo was in the second heat. He remembers tuning out all sounds from the first heat except the sound of the starter and the beep that inevitably followed. He was in the ready room and reached down to the ground as if he was taking his mark with the first heat. When the beep sounded, Nilo memorized it. The sound was deeply engrained in his mind. He had just programmed himself to depart with the first detection of this particular beep.

The second heat stepped up and Nilo's mind was completely blank. He took his mark.
Beep.

Nilo pulled his body forward and let his legs lift him off. He was scared.

"I was by myself in the air," Nilo recalls.

He couldn't feel the typical presence of swimmers soaring beside him. The sensor on the starting block said it all. Nilo had recorded the fastest reaction time of the meet. He had surged his sturdy, 6-foot-4-inch frame off the starting block in .58 seconds.

The slack in my dangling arms disappears as I grasp the edge and lengthen my back leg.

"Take your mark."

The spring tightens. My chest pulls away from my thigh. My arms are taut, my legs are loaded, and my mind is weightless.

Beep.

Air hits the soles of my feet and I soar above the brilliant blue. The land element of my race is over. The aquatic world awaits me.