Today is a big day in the life of every area parent acquainted with the dolphin kick. It is the last swim meet Saturday of the summer.
This morning about 40 teams of enthusiastic kids -- with their sun-dried parents -- will descend on seven Central Maryland pools and race each other in noisy, season-ending divisional swim meets.
The swim-team scene was new to me. When I was a kid, all I did at the swimming pool was attempt a few cannon-balls off the high board and eat a substantial number of frozen Milky Way candy bars at the concession stand. But after following my kids and their neighborhood swim team around this summer, I have become familiar with the "swim-team parent" routine.
It begins early Saturday morning with the rousing of the sleeping children. If shaking doesn't stir the sleeping swimmers, squirting lotion on their backs will. It also gets another nasty job, the slathering of the sun block lotion, well under way.
At the kitchen table the freshly oiled kids, clad in their team swimsuits, sit and stare at their breakfast. This is the clue for a harried, half-dressed adult to yell at the kids to "Hurry up and eat, we gotta go."
As the family bolts for the door, there is the frantic search. Some vital item, a pair of swim goggles, a shoe, a favorite towel, is always missing.
A few meets are held at your neighborhood pool, which you can locate, even early on a Saturday morning. But most meets are held at distant swimming pools, many hidden from view. Directions have been printed on how to get to the camouflaged pool, but the directions are written in code. For example:
Coded directions: "Find the sign for Route 3 South. Real directions: Do NOT take Route 3."
Coded directions: "Turn left at flashing yellow light." Real directions: Turn left at SECOND flashing yellow light.
The reading of directions is often followed by the fighting with your spouse: "You said you KNEW where this pool was." This is followed by a tense silence, until miraculously the lost pool appears on the horizon.
Upon arrival at pool, the kids flee to the coaches, who put them through warm-up exercises. The coaches also tell the kids what races they are swimming, in the hope that when the event goes off the kids will be there.
When parents arrive at the pool they begin to search for coffee -- the real high caffeine stuff, no decaf, no instant -- and shade. It is considered good form for parents to help at the meets. So when somebody sticks a stopwatch in your hand, that's a signal it is time for stopwatcher operators to meet the judge of the swim meet.
The judge wears white, carries a starting gun and assumes that most parents are not too swift. Sometimes the judge is right. For example, during the "practice" timing session, you discover that running a stopwatch is more than your reflexes can cope with at 8 a.m.
What most swim team parents want from a judge is speed. No soliloquy as the kids climb on the starting blocks. Like the cattle herder in "Rawhide," the judge is supposed to "Get 'em up! Move 'em out!"
Golfers may brag about their scores; swim team parents brag about the fastest meet.
"This one judge we had had us out of there by 11:15," a dad from an Anne Arundel swim team told me this week. I told him about a judge in Westminster who had a meet wrapped up by 11:30 in the morning. The meets begin around 9 a.m., unless the judge gets lost and shows up late. That happened to us this season at Crownsville. We didn't get out of there until after 1 p.m.
The swim team parent learns to appreciate wide pools. The wider the pool, the more races that can be run at once, the faster the meet is over.
The swim team parent knows that in sizing up the opposing team, a key consideration is the birthrate. If, for example, the opposing team parents have given birth to substantially more "8 and under" freestylers, or "10 and under backstrokers," your chances of victory go down.
And the swim team parent learns that during the meet his children, immersed in the tribal competition, will periodically forget that he is there. They will remember when they need money for a trip to the concession stand and when they are disqualified, or "DQed" in swim meet argot. Kids gets "DQed" all the time for all kinds of reasons, like using a flutter kick instead of a dolphin kick. It is often hard to take. A kid thinks he has covered himself and his team with glory, only to be told his effort didn't count.
It is then that the swim team parent learns that homilies on "how it happens to everyone" are largely ineffective and that the best remedies for taking the sting out of a "DQ" are a cold soda, some salty chips and another race.