Lessons From Legends: Swimming Traditions

Chuck Warner, the author and coach, is an old friend. Thoughtful and passionate about the sport, he has studied the details behind what it takes to achieve swimming excellence.

Holidays are approaching and with them will come long held traditions. Some of those will be met with eagerness, perhaps because of gifts or visits with rarely seen relatives. Other traditions such as slugging through hours of heavy traffic, the smell of Aunt Lou’s perfume or being pushed to ‘try new foods’ may not be so welcome, but we tolerate them for the good of the total family experience.

Who can help but admire President Kennedy’s recently highlighted tradition of putting his brothers and their families on the Presidential helicopter most summer weekends and flying from Washington D.C. to the family compound in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod? As soon as he arrived he would pile kids onto a golf cart, and speed them gleefully around the grounds.  While this routine must have been great fun for the kids, it also enabled the President to leave behind his stress from work and flash back to the feeling of being a child.

Most swimmers of high school and college age participate in the tradition of shaving down at the end of a season, perhaps getting a special hair cut, making posters and maybe eating a traditional pre-race meal. Mike Barrowman−who held the 200-meter breaststroke world record for thirteen years−would do nearly everything right all year long, then always have his McDonalds lunch at the Olympics or World Championships before winning another gold medal. Michael Phelps adopted the habit of wearing headphones as he walked to the starting blocks and stretched before each major race. Long time USA Team Captain Josh Davis, started a tradition at the University of Texas of taking his relay teams to a remote spot and sitting quietly together as a foursome for twenty minutes or more, before their championship relays which often dismantled the record books.

But the most powerful traditions are shared by groups or teams, and passed on year after year.  Some are as commonplace as making sure everyone on the team has a nickname. Blue-collar coaches are often accustomed to requiring particularly heavy training during school breaks.  Blue-collar swimmers usually love it. The USA National Team has a tradition of a talent show conducted by new members on their first international trip.  The Olympic Games is opened every four years with the traditional carrying of the torch. These experiences not only bind people of an existing group together, but also provide a thread stitching together multiple generations.

  • Do you have any personal traditions?
  • What are your team’s traditions?
  • If very few of them jump to mind, perhaps you can start one that will last for generations?

One can bet that the 2012 USA Olympic women’s swimming team has started a tradition of making a music video like the “Call Me Maybe” hit they produced. The joy that permeated through that video suggested a loving, fearless attitude that the women’s team leaders like Rebecca Soni, Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin seemed to possess—and the team embraced to perform with so much success.

A special tradition has been taking place on Thanksgiving morning for more than a quarter century in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. Swimmers come back to the Berkeley Aquatic Club (BAC) to visit for a ‘workout’, a conversation or both. It is a favorite day of the year for the owner and head coach of BAC for the last 39 years, Jim Wood. Last year more than fifty alums joined the current team at practice. Some no longer live in the area, but return to see their families including their extended one at BAC. The sojourn has been going on for so long that those students of Coach Wood are now bringing their own children to see where their mother or father learned so many lessons to live their lives, and meet the person that tutored them through that process.

A part of the magnet that draws other generations back dozens of years later is seeing old teammates, recalling the car pool to practice, perhaps good natured pranks of yester year, or possibly reminding each other of the challenges they met that seem so small today, but loomed so large years ago.  All over the world youngsters become forged by good swimming programs that promote character by encouraging self-reliance and executing accountability for it. BAC is one of many of those.

Traditions we build around our lives, our friendships and our families are mutually beneficial. While Jim Wood has helped thousands of youngsters become responsible adults, today those adults help take care of Jim Wood and BAC.

What do you renew each year in your life? Your annual meal, phone call or visit?  A simple “thank you” to a coach, a child, a teammate or a parent might be something they will remember the rest of their life. The richest reward of your own traditions may exist inside your self. For the eternal life we lead is the result of our personal traditions and those we share with the people closest to us.

Lessons from Legends, book cover (Courtesy of Chuck Warner)For more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go towww.areteswim.com (access Books * Media) or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter@chuckwarner1.

Follow Chuck Warner on Twitter here. 

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About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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