Confessions of a Helicopter Swim Mom

by SwimSwam Contributors 8

July 30th, 2022 Lifestyle

Courtesy: Pamela Zembiec

We all see it at every meet, the mom or parents who walk away from the seats exhilarated from the drop or defeated from the add. The desperation of waiting patiently in the stands for hours just to watch your child swim a minuscule 30 seconds in hopes this time might dwindle to at least a 29.99 because we know a drop is a drop. As long as meet mobile displays that final time in green, a helicopter mom can have some sort of hope in this tumultuous journey of red and green times accumulated over a nine-year love-hate relationship with this grueling sport most deem intolerable after the age of 12. “Only the strong survive the pitfalls of puberty.” These words came from another supposedly helpful fellow swim team helicopter mom, and I ignored them because my daughter was different. We came from a long history of survivors; we were strong and what doesn’t make you stronger makes you weaker.

For my daughter, her love of victory within the realm of green came to a swift halt after her 13th birthday party was celebrated across the street from the YMCA in Orlando, FL. Her relay team had just won the silver medal for the 11-12 girls and the team sat at the local Mexican restaurant eating chips and queso, stuffing their faces after a long week of amazing competition. This mom gloated over her daughter’s accomplishment, after all I was the one who drove her to practice each day, paid for the club swimming, bought the tickets and hotel room for Florida, and the expensive “fast skins” easily replacing those which ripped in the blink of an eye. This wasn’t an individual sport; this was a team of daughter swimmer and helicopter swim mom. And this partnership was about to undergo a journey in swimming most would end as the looming words from my peer haunted my thoughts, creeping slowly forward from the recesses of my mind scaring me with the possibility this might be the last time my daughter would ever see the waters of the Y.

The tumultuous waters of club swimming began the summer of 2019 when I made the decision to move. This resulted in changing schools, changing friends, and changing swim teams. I thought the team we had chosen was a good fit, but unfortunately not. A very tight nit club team where the families weren’t welcoming and the coaches, although experienced and nice, weren’t a good fit for my daughter’s ADHD personality. You see, her old coaches reveled in this and used it more as a strength than a weakness for her swimming. The new ones weren’t privy to her previous accomplishments of “high point award winner” in her summer swimming career and her two consecutive visits to the NCSA Age Group Meet. She had a talent most didn’t see until later in their years for backstroke with hers at age 10 mimicking what her coach called “big girl backstroke”. This swim team mom took those words to heart and pushed this forward in the new club, but to no avail. We were just one among several others with a new 13-year-old girl entering into puberty and having the newly acquired 13-14 age group times.

And just as I was warned, it happened. Meet Mobile displayed a wealth of red under my daughter’s name for well over a year. Not a single drop in time in her 13th year from her quad A backstroke times acquired at the age of 12. In fact, these times went from quad A to A with no hope in sight for a team of two who weren’t familiar with these results. Defeated and exhausted I called over to her old coaching group because of course this wasn’t my daughter, this had to be the new team. Right? Well, not so much. This Helicopter mom placed her in the wrong group because I wanted her to get acquainted with the area and with the team. In fact, the other part of this team of two, my daughter, shared how she felt like she didn’t fit in this group and wanted to go back to her old team. This was impossible as we lived too far away for this to be a possibility, yet could it be?

The opportunity of nothing began shortly thereafter when the pandemic hit our state closing nearly all the swim programs within a 200-mile radius. The sport of swimming was in utter chaos with parents buying portable swim pools and placing bungy cords on the side to allow for continual laps in a small baby pool most would only use to sit and chill with a margarita.

The sport of swimming and the pandemic is another topic I could spend hours writing about, but I won’t because this helicopter mom must focus on the topic at hand. But I will say, the pandemic gave my daughter a newfound love for her sport. Basically, a concept of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” kind of analogy and she was able to reflect on her sport knowing deep down this new team wasn’t a good fit. Helicopter mom to the rescue once again! I talked to her old coaches, I searched and of course, finally found a way for her to swim with the closest team in her old swimming group. This team of two wouldn’t be defeated by anyone or anything and certainly not a pandemic or a 35-minute one way drive. “That which doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.” This was the mantra I repeated inside of my head while we sat in traffic getting to the facility on most days, turning a 35-minute drive into an hour.

Then, the unspeakable news of the practice facility not reopening because of the pandemic nearly sent us into a quitting tailspin for this forced her team to swim in outdoor heated pools during the coldest winter months. But to the surprise of us all, my daughter dropped time in her spring short course champs meet, getting into these with her 12-year-old backstroke times. The new team and new coaches seemed to be helping her with less practices, but more coaching. Most importantly, the smile from age 7 returned with this new group of coaches and kids. Then a slow halt of smiles as the horrid aging up for a not really swimming as must as she needs to for a 15–18-year-old age group newbie entered the picture.

The agony of defeat set sail that summer as she tried to compete with the older girls in her backstroke, never winning a blue ribbon the entire summer season. This team of two sat deflated as the high point scorer turned to barely making divisionals. One would think this team might quit after such a hard-hitting blow because those in the sport of swimming know summer swim is simply just for fun. But wait, remember this team of two doesn’t give up and it’s much more beneficial to be getting worse or getting better, not just maintaining, right?

As I sit here and write this story, it’s after another year of tumultuous swimming where my daughter’s short course season was once again altered by the pandemic, the facility closed for nearly six weeks of her training causing issues and increased colds before major competitions. It’s been one thing after another as we drive nearly an hour one way trying to figure out why we continue to do this. Where did the green go? Will it ever come back? I simply don’t know this answer, but what I do know is the sport of swimming isn’t for the faint of heart. There are more downs than ups and it’s not just about the green, it’s about the journey. This has taken me a long time to realize.

Right before long course champs this summer, she got sick with a cold again. This helicopter mom was angry. Angry about all the driving, all the money, all the time and all the disappointments. The other team member, the one who actually counts, wasn’t. The smile was there, her attitude positive and her happiness intact. How could this be? This child, now a young lady, said to her helicopter mom teammate, “Mom, this is my swimming, not yours. If I’m happy, you should be happy too, because that’s all that really matters.” I asked her. “Don’t you care about dropping time?” I began to get angry again, wondering why I spent all this time and money on someone who didn’t care about getting better, but I realized something. She was getting better, she was growing up, she was maturing, and she was in charge, not just of her swimming, but her life. I really wasn’t half of this team, for she was the team.

Swimming is about so much more than the green times in meet mobile and for all of us who are helicopter swim moms, this might be our most important lesson as we work through this marathon of emotional ups and downs. My daughter has gained so much from the sport of swimming and although she still strives for green, and by the way, she did get a little green in that championship meet (a sign of helicopter mom syndrome, always talking about the green), she has acquired perseverance and mental toughness to last through several lifetimes. So, as helicopter moms, we must retire our wings which is extremely challenging, but necessary for us all and even though we have retired our wings, we can still walk beside our children as their biggest fan on solid ground.

Signs of Helicopter Mom Syndrome

  1. Getting emotional drained after each meet.
  2. Arguing with your child about why they didn’t drop time.
  3. Visibly angry when your child doesn’t drop time.
  4. Checking meet mobile after each event your child swims every 30 seconds even though it has just refreshed, and the results aren’t available.
  5. Telling people, you have a swim meet or swim practice. No, your child has these, not you.
  6. Forcing your child to go to practice on most days. They must choose this and if they don’t, time to stop.
  7. Posting every positive meet on Facebook, but never the bad ones.
  8. Phantom swimming: telling your kid how to the swim the event even though you’ve never swam a day in your life.
  9. Setting your kid’s swim goals for them.

ABOUT PAMELA ZEMBIEC

Pamela Zembiec is an author and Gold Star Spouse who has dedicated several years of her professional career advocating for military bereaved family members. Her journey represents triumph through adversity. She has worked with nonprofits as a consultant and volunteer helping to establish programs benefitting the greater good. In her first book, Selfless Beyond Service, A Story about the Husband Son and Father Behind the Lion of Fallujah, she takes readers on her personal journey of grief and trauma immediately following the death of her husband. This book includes several personal letters from her late husband in a brutally honest account of what happens after traumatic military death. She was inspired to learn more about her experience by obtaining a Master of Science in Thanatology, the study of death and dying, from Marian University. Her first role as the sole parent to her sixteen-year-old daughter has been her most important job. Placing everything second to her role as mom and swim mom. Because our children carry the legacy for this great nation, this became the primary reason for writing her second book, The Shattering. 

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Mark Rauterkus
3 months ago

What if the mom has been a swimmer — and that “never a day in your life” claim does not hold water? Would be better to not have that in the rant.

Past Swim Parent
3 months ago

This article should be printed and distributed to every parent during the Parent Meeting, prior to the season beginning. The rage and overall unhappiness I observed in some parents when their child failed to drop time after a race was OVER the top. What I believe that some parents fail to realize is that it’s their child’s sport, NOT their own. A parent should act as the unwavering supporter and not the child’s coach, time-keeper, goal setter, and/or helicopter mom or dad. A parent’s negative words/actions can be detrimental to a child’s growth and development. I could write a book on what I saw in my twelve years as a parent on a competitive East Coast swim team. I watched… Read more »

Mediocre Superstar
3 months ago

I can relate so much with this article and have been trying to write something similar in experience. I’ve grown to hate the sport and the intense ups and downs however, my kid’s love for the sport is never wavering. I should follow that lead but my competitive, wanting to be #1 no matter the cost just won’t subside. I have high blood pressure from all the meets and the complicated emotions they cause for me. I struggle internally not to make it about myself and try to keep my external appearance as if I don’t care and am not so invested.

Buyer beware, although its a great sport that you can indulge in forever (assuming you don’t injure)… Read more »

Dinos Superfan
4 months ago

This is insane.

Taa
4 months ago

I wanna know if she is going to prom with her daughter

Sam
4 months ago

There is a Karen in all of us

cynthia curran
4 months ago

I thought that swimming was a waste of time since I was a mediocre swimmer as a kid, but at age 65 it some form of exercise that I can do. Well, I think it takes some years to find the value of swimming

Swim Parent
4 months ago

Love this article and I couldn’t agree more. Every swim club should forward your article to their parent membership. I think you described 99% of swim parents in some way.