By Robert Sullivan, fifth and final in a series
They swim for food.
That’s a bit of a joke, and like many mild jokes, it aims to mean more, since it’s obviously it’s not terribly funny as is. It is, like some other lame jokes, at least sixty percent metaphor.
But let’s start with the literal.
Literally: They do swim for food. Michael Phelps is their idol in this angle. He famously eats cows and horses and houses for breakfast and lunch and dinner, and has done so since he was three years old. Then he burns it all off with his crazy workouts and his Martian metabolism. If he really is finally retired from swimming, he’s going to be hugely fat at next year’s pro-am golf tournament in Pebble Beach.
Our kids all know about Michael’s eating habits, and they have their own young appetites. They might have started pudgy, but in recent seasons they have grown strong and lean on food and swimming. They like the feeling. They see food as nourishment and, to return to a theme of earlier chapters in this series, prize.
Several of our Greeley swimmers competed at a very fast winter-team meet in Cary, North Carolina, earlier this year and lived as Spartans for three days: eggs, fruits, Vitamin Water, Gatorade. Then, with the meet ended, they pled with their parents to take them to this weird little kiosk of a food place—you drive up and order and it comes out through the window, no restaurant attached; it’s like the original McDonald’s mated with an ATM; there’s no way to know where (or if) this stuff is actually being cooked; Anthony Bourdain would be horrified. The paper bags are handed back into the car and there they are torn open, and the swimmers agree: “I’ve been waiting for this all weekend!” Adding: “This is the best shake in the world.” It is assumed that they spend 51 weeks a year dreaming, with night sweats, of this funky joint. If they return to Carolina next year, it’s for a lot of things, but it’s also for the food, which is sweeter and excusable only because they swim.
More on real (sort of) food, before we beat to death the metaphorical stuff. As you perhaps know, the Greeley boys went unbeaten again in dual meets this season and that fact delivered the seniors to a 35-0 four-year record. They won Divisionals again and also Sectionals—second year in a row. Our tall captain set two meet and pool records at Sectionals, and was matched by his also-but-not-quite-as-tall co-captain for wins and points: They dominated this meet, and the Quakers won by more than 50 points.
That was all good, but what was great was the post-meet dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings (slogan: “Wings. Beer. Sports.”; you get the gist). The bus pulled into the Palisades Mall and the guys had a heck of a time, sans “Beer.” They didn’t know what the meal they were eating was doing to them health-wise—certainly a good thing, not to know—but they enjoyed themselves—they enjoyed each other, a team chowing down—immensely. Physically, this was a dining wreck; psychically, it was five-star.
Then, after Sectionals, it was on to States, to which we sent seven qualifying swimmers: a high number.
Just a brief aside here: High school swimming turns into a strange sport, post-season. In many team sports—soccer, baseball, football, basketball—when the regular season ends, the whole team moves on through the various rounds towards an ultimate goal. No child left behind. In swimming, which is, make no mistake, very much a team sport in high school, the team dwindles, as only qualifiers are still standing. It’s a credit to the Quakers that the boys left off the bus continued to find their own rides—including a separate bus for the States meet—in order to cheer on those who had survived.
Now back to the narrative.
In between Sectionals and States the School Board opened a meeting, after the Pledge of Allegiance, by honoring the team, and these seven plus Coach got up there, the boys in their orange and blue neckties and their heads hanging glumly as is the adolescent custom since Adam. The litany of their recent triumphs was read into the minutes of the meeting. Of course the words of praise sunk in, but the whole affair might have been better with snacks.
States, it must be said, did not start well.
Let’s take that back: Everything started wonderfully.
The boys had been told by Coach that they were still swimming for Dear Ol’ Greeley, surely, but also for Section One against all the other state sections. At the Thursday evening Section One practice they greeted their suddenly expanded family. These others were kids they had swum against for years, and now they each had made it to this exalted peak. After drying off, the boys broke bread together at a Section One team meal. They bonded in the way that young adults can bond: fast. All these kids will see one another again here and there during summer swimming, which is so much more relaxed, and they will fist-bump and know: We’ll always have States.
So fraternally, things started wonderfully, but competition-wise, States did not start well for Greeley. The first event was a relay and our team was seeded high but dq’ed, which means was disqualified for jumping the gun on one of the legs. The relay would not be allowed to swim in the Finals on Saturday. Our Greeley team, including the three boys who were still dry, was stunned, and remained disconsolate, which is to say flat, throughout the Friday swims. Nevertheless, several of the boys got through and would compete on Saturday.
By all accounts, the coaches handled disappointment beautifully, even sagely, and on Saturday Greeley rallied. Breaststroke, the other two relays: Contributions were coming from all over. And then there was our tall captain, one of five exemplary captains this year, who picked himself up, shook himself off and got back in the race. He won the 100 free and 100 back in All American-quality times and was named New York state’s swimmer of the year. Section One swimmers—not just his Greeley teammates, but his new brethren, erstwhile and future rivals—cheered him wildly.
The boys rode the Section One bus home, with stops in White Plains and elsewhere. When one boy got back to New Castle he slumped in a chair, looked back at the season and the culminating weekend, and uttered, “I feel depressed, like I used to when camp ended.”
But here’s the thing, kids: There will be future chapters, further meals—including surprising meals.
And now be warned, dear reader: We’re going to sink into the turgidly metaphoric.
Food can be a funny thing. It often tastes great and “as expected” going down because it was selected. We chose that banana or that spear of broccoli, or that Dorito. We often know what we’re getting.
But sometimes, we end up liking food we thought we’d hate.
Where is this going, vis-a-vis the swim experience for our high-schoolers? Back to an exceedingly odd prelude of this championship season.
In early autumn of last year, a bunch of the kids who swam for this year’s Greeley boys and girls teams, each of which excelled to a trophy level, had a seeming setback with their club team. The indoor pool was broken. Okay. A week at an outdoor pool in late August, a pool borrowed from one of the local municipalities—no sweat. Then the indoor pool stayed broken, stubbornly broken throughout the fall. The water in the outdoor pools got darned cold, and the kids became transitory vagrants as pools closed down for the season. They traveled every evening to this one or that one. Desperate migrants that they so obviously were, they were welcomed throughout the community; new pools were added to the list. The kids, for their part, preferred the country club pool that was heated, but even it was destined to shut down, as was autumn itself. The sun was setting earlier, dusk after dusk.
But these kids: They showed up for practice through September, and oftentimes their coach said, that’s enough, it’s too cold, and they were at a town park and so played touch football for a half hour or took a run in a gaggle of runners. The leaves turned colors as October pressed in, the harvest moon loomed large and orange on the horizon, and some nights an ice coating set in on the boxwoods and even upon the pool. Parents started to complain, even as the kids started to complain less. Finally, the indoor pool was fixed, and our swimmers returned to the humid confines.
It is offered: Twenty years from now, they will look back on the “mess”—which seemed such awful gruel when presented on the plate—and remember swimming at sunset, playing football, jogging in a pack, becoming teammates. This too was “swimming” for these kids. The food and nourishment is not always as it might seem when the waiter arrives with the amuse-bouche. The feast of Saturday at States didn’t resemble Friday’s unappealing appetizer at all, and our boys will remember Saturday. And some of them, as well as some of our girl swimmers, will remember last October fondly.
Let’s return to the literal, whence we came: The boys would have one more actual meal, an annual affair: the team break-up banquet. The kids anticipate it as a party and a pig-out, their parents see it as a treat, an excuse to visit the sublime Crabtree’s Kittle House (and, yes, okay, also as a reason to celebrate their sons).
Coach could barely get through all the plaudits during the presentations. This season’s captains were saluted, next year’s were named. The funny pictures of the seniors when they had been toddlers at the town pool or at the shore—so small, so skinny or so husky—were a hoot. The laughter was general. The pathos of Last Call was felt by all the boys.
The food, by the way, was superb.
This night, achieving satiety from other sources—from one another—none of the kids remembered what they ate.
Check out the Why Do They Swim? series
- Why do they swim? Part I
- Why do they swim? Part II
- Why do they swim? Part III
- Why do they swim? Part IV
Bob Sullivan, a former editor and writer at Sports Illustrated, is more proudly a swim dad. His elder daughter and his son have competed in recent years for the Mount Kisco Boys & Girls Club Marlins and the Horace Greeley High School Quakers, both in New York. Sullivan recently wrote a series of articles for the Greeley boosters website speculating on why his kids and all the others stick with it, and they will be reprinted here in SwimSwam by permission of the author.