Swimming Among the Olympians, A Memoir

by SwimSwam Contributors 8

June 15th, 2020 Lifestyle

Chris McClelland’s new book of short stories SWIMMING AMONG THE OLYMPIANS: A MEMOIR AND COLLECTED STORIES will be available for FREE from June 16 to June 21.  It would make a great Father’s Day gift. It is a collection of swimming related stories and other exciting and interesting stories of short fiction. You can find it here: Amazon Link

In August of 1983, I was an 18-year old freshman at the University of Florida. I had recently broken 50-point in the 100 yard freestyle and had been ranked 5th in the state of Florida among the high school 50 free crowd. At the state meet, I was on our team’s All-State free relay team. Decent bona fides, to be sure, but hardly qualifying for a slot on Randy Reese’s college team. Graciously, the future Olympic swim coach allowed me and three other swimmers at the university to walk on to his team. It was truly a humbling experience, walking on that team, but certainly the experience of a lifetime.

The first place I went to when I got to town was the pool in the Stephen C. O’Connell Athletic Center. The first person I saw was Coach Reese standing in his orange box, overseeing the swimmers in his charge. That pool facility was staggering in size, and legendary. Wide open and majestic, the water aqua-beautiful and churning. Sparkling bright. The men and women in the pool were the heroes of mine and of my friends in the high school team. One of my friends even got the autograph of Craig Beardsley, world record holder in the 200 meter butterfly. As I walked across the deck, to the divider that split the 50-meter pool into two 25-yard pools, I thought I saw the world record holder in one of the lanes hemmed in with orange and blue lane lines. I approached Reese and shook his hand. He was momentarily startled, didn’t know me, had the vague look of someone lost in focused, concentrated thought. He welcomed me, told me to talk to his assistant, Skip Foster, and he returned to his clipboard.

The next day, Skip gave me two orange “Gator” T-shirts and with them access to the university’s workout room near the football stadium. My first practice was the hardest I had ever had in my life. First, in the weight room, I jumped up on 3 foot tall blocks, and with a future Olympic gold medalist named Matt Cetlinski, we passed a huge medicine ball back and forth while doing sit-ups. The first few days I could hardly handle the ball, but by the second week, Matt and I had a rhythm going. Snap-throw-catch; snap-throw catch. It was a thing of beauty and strengthened the core of all who did this exercise. I did the normal bench pressing and military presses but no one here was gunning for max bench press weight, like in high school. No, conditioning was the name of the game here, the exercises merely an adjunct to the main work that always took place in the pool.

There was another setting for our workouts: Florida Field, the football stadium, otherwise known to students and alumni as “The Swamp.” This was a particular site for intense physical pain. Coach Reese told us that the Russians and the East Germans were stepping up their conditioning program, so we would be too. This was the time of the Cold War, where things such as athletic standings had much greater significance internationally, and was a part of how people around the globe viewed the struggle between Capitalism and Communism. Coach Reese had a heightened awareness of these implications. And so did we.

First, we were given a half-hour to run stadiums in this football venue, and usually I would end up doing around 15 stadiums, an inconceivable amount to me. Then, we did jumps off the ten foot high wall at the bottom of the bleachers and landed on the astroturf. Easy way to get your quads in prime shape or to break a leg. Every exercise I did, I seemed to be accomplishing the impossible. Then, Coach had us stand up on the 50 yard line, and fall forward to the turf until we stopped ourselves with our palms and pushed against the earth in one giant motion to push-up back to a standing position. It was unreal. How was I doing this? How were any of us? Coach Reese expected, and we delivered. It was just how practices went.

After, we walked down the street in loping, loose swimmers’ gaits, ready for practice in the pool and stretching on the way. I talked to Craig Beardsley, world record holder in the 200 meter butterfly, about the most efficient way to do the stroke. He advised me to emphasize the hips, not the upper body. I followed his advice, with wonderful results. We got to the balloon shaped dome of the O’Connell Center and dressed out in the locker room for practice. I saw behind a steel grate the actual team’s sweats, meant for meets, and I coveted those silky sweats. If only I could one day wear those sweats.

The practices churned on for months. The 49 that I swam at just the end of the summer, and had been my personal best, was soon becoming a common performance in the 100 yard repeats. The repeats left me with five seconds or less of rest: glorious, blissful seconds where I would have, not only a peak physical experience, but a peak spiritual one as well. I would do sets of 100s on the minute, fifty-five seconds, down to the fifty seconds. Each practice left me marrow-tired and exhausted of energy. Every practice I astonished myself at how fast I could swim. Faster, and faster, for longer and longer periods of time.

Not all the walk-ons were so fortunate. Two other swimmers were asked to see Coach Reese in his office at the end of practice. They never came back to practice. It was me and one other walk-on left after that.

Geoff Gaberino was my workout partner in the weight room now, and he was headed for the Olympics. Was that in the cards for me too? I didn’t know. I did know I was at my physical peak. One day while jumping on the three foot wooden boxes I slipped and scraped my shin. Tracy Caulkins helped me bandage it and was generally a very nice young woman. She treated me as if I belonged there. That meant a lot to me at the time.

Soon, the other walk-on was dropped and it had turned cold outside. It was November and I marveled at my legs in the reflection of the glass door at the swimming complex. My legs looked like a thoroughbred’s, sculpted and finely muscled. I was amazed. Was this me in the reflection?

Alas, eventually came the day when I was asked to see the coach after practice. He asked me to do a time trial in the 200 yard IM and he would have Craig Beardsley pace me. I swam hard and fast, my vision misting pinkly around the edges, the last 50 yards of freestyle a very strong finish. Still, I was touched out by Craig. Of course I was. He had been pacing me. There was no question of who would win.

But when I looked up to the electronic time board I was sorely crestfallen. It had not even been turned on. Coach Reese led me back to his small office. He had amassed quite a bit of data on my performances, none of which he shared with me. But he did say, “Chris, you’ve made progress far beyond what Skip or I would have expected. Normally, we’d be able to use a swimmer like you on the Gator team, but this is an Olympic year, and I am the Olympic coach. I am willing to let you continue practicing with our FAST team, our US Swimming team, until I feel you are ready for our travelling team, but I would suggest you transfer to the University of Tennessee. They have an excellent sprint freestyle program. I could set that up for you. Let me know what you decide.”

I never did let him know. And I never asked about my time in that time trial. I felt like I was in a freefall. I practiced with FAST, but with no meets on the horizon, I quickly became dispirited about future swimming plans. I had an active social life and chose to spend more time at a fraternity I had joined. Eventually I met with Skip Forster to give him my workout T-shirts and bid a final farewell to serious competitive swimming. He let me keep the shirts, which I cherish to this day. I will always treasure my time training with the Gators, and it is something that no one can take away. A once in a lifetime experience.

ABOUT CHRIS MCLELLAND

Chris McClelland is a novelist and an award-winning short story writer. He has published In Love and War, a novel hailed as a “new classic” and a novella, Under Old Glory. He is releasing a collection of short fiction, some of which are swimming-related short stories, which also includes the above true-life memoir, titled Swimming Among the Olympians: A Memoir and Collected Stories. You can find out more about Chris McClelland and his writing at https://chrismcclelland22.com/blog/, where you can also pre-order his book of stories. The book will be officially released on June 15th.

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MIKE IN DALLAS
4 months ago

I found the piece to be a compelling account of how things work well — and can still go south!
Bittersweet, but very instructive!

writer Chris
Reply to  MIKE IN DALLAS
4 months ago

Yes, Mike. It was bittersweet. I worked harder for that spot than for anything in my life. But in the end, the friends, in and out of the pool, sustained me.

Fly 100
4 months ago

Thanks Chris !
In 1977 Randy kept all of the walk ons (about 10 in total) , but as the team grew over the years it was increasingly more difficult as you mentioned in the Olympic year with post grads. I really respected the efforts of swimmers like yourself and developed some great friendships outside of the pool with these “warriors”. In the end it is all about the friendships developed from these opportunities.

writer Chris
Reply to  Fly 100
4 months ago

Thanks for that, Fly. I did indeed make friends in and out of the pool. What drew me to the fraternity I joined was a Gator swimmer from the season before, Jeff Strump. Other swimmers in Gainesville also became good friends.

Dcswim
4 months ago

Walk-ons, man. We always have interesting stories to tell!

I joined halfway through my freshman year, albeit at a mid-major school. I had friends, joined a fraternity, and was enjoying my time on the club swim team. Did I really want to give up some of that life to chase a black line while I rode the wakes of NCAA qualifiers? While at times it was physically and mentally draining, I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world!

Thank you for telling your story and making me reminisce on all the memories I made and the lessons I learned along the way!

writer Chris
Reply to  Dcswim
4 months ago

Yes, DCSWIM, we do have interesting stories as walk-ons. And I was very lucky to even been given the opportunity to train with the Gator team.