IT HAD BEEN a long time since I had gotten "wasted" on a Saturday morning, since I had been so totally tuckered out by 2 p.m. that I needed some serious late-afternoon sofa time. It had been a long time, in other words, since I had been to a summer swim meet. I joined the ranks of swim team parents 15 years ago, but in the last two years, I had enjoyed a vacation from this duty. One kid was too old to compete, the other was playing baseball almost every Saturday morning when the meets were held.
My hiatus ended Saturday, when the Bolton Hill Barracudas met the Hunting Hills Hammerheads and kicked off (along with some 40 other teams in the Central Maryland Swim League scattered around metropolitan Baltimore) the six-week summer season.
Once again I had a kid swimming, and once again I was among the ranks of sweltering poolside parents trying not to zone out when it was the kid's turn to compete. In the old days, I rarely missed seeing any event that either of our two kids swam in. Last Saturday, stupor ruled, and I committed the cardinal sin of a swim team parent: I was at the pool, yet missed seeing my kid swim an event. I blew the freestyle, a rookie parent's mistake. The layoff showed.
The opening of the swim team season sends ripples through the membership of many community pools. Instead of a few lap swimmers plying tranquil waters, the pool can fill up on any given Saturday in July with hordes of spirited kids racing swimmers imported from some other distant pool. There are cheers and congratulations, occasional tears, and snack bar delights such as the surprisingly toothsome taco in a bag. All this begins early in the morning, ends somewhere in the early afternoon. It feels like forever.
Swim meets are not grueling, at least for parents. But they are stultifying. You stand out in the sun, like a crop in the field, for hours at a stretch. You don't do much - you help time the races; you scribble at the scorer's table; you sell stuff at the concession stand. Yet at the end of the meet, you feel as sharp-witted as a zucchini.
Parents perform swim team duty because we feel it is one of the things we are supposed to do, part of the parental package. And we do it because even in our addled, dehydrated state, we recognize that good things are happening here.
We know that when kids sign up for summer swim team, they join a tribe. It is a tribe presided over by coaches, young adults who serve both as counselors and whip-crackers. It is a tribe where the old, the teen-agers, are assigned to watch out for the young, the 8-and-unders. It is a tribe where those in-between age groups - the aptly named middle schoolers - float around picking up good and bad habits. It is a tribe that provides rigor and regularity - practice every day - in a time of year when laxity and lassitude can rule.
We also know that when you are a swim team parent you get permission to hang around, season after season, and watch the endlessly fascinating process of kids growing up.
Last Saturday, as swimmers swarmed around picnic tables, engaging in the post-meet ritual of eating pizza and collecting ribbons, I felt like a tribal elder, a gray-hair who sits on the edge of the campfire, telling tales from years gone by.
I could tell them that the road ahead was long and winding, full of uncertain early-morning journeys through the suburbs. These are called away meets. I could tell them several Saturdays from now there will be a grand gathering of the swim team tribes. It will be known as divisionals, and, as gray-hairs remember all too clearly, divisionals are very, very hot and last very, very long.
I said nothing. Instead, I watched as an initiate, Ned, a 5-year-old who lives down the street, joined the tribe. It had been his first swim meet. Now he rose from the knot of swim team buddies, a mass of bare arms and legs, and stepped forward to pick up one of three ribbons he had earned. He was walking on air.