Like Mike

July 31, 2004|By Peter Jensen

THIS IS THE summer of Michael Phelps. It may be two weeks before the 19-year-old from Rodgers Forge launches his bid for seven gold medals in the Olympics, yet his presence already looms large -- and not just in television ads. Today is the final day of the summer swim team season, and you can bet his name will be invoked at pools across the state. For these youngsters, being "like Mike" has little to do with anybody named Jordan.

On the last Saturday of July, the best swimmers in each of the Central Maryland Swim League's nine divisions compete head-to-head in divisional championships. In Division II, members of Timonium's Springlake Swim Team will proudly wear Mr. Phelps' initials. He sent them all personalized red, white and blue buttons the previous weekend.

It was a thrilling gesture. Last summer, Mr. Phelps spent half a day with the team, signing autographs at a meet and, in a particularly memorable moment, swimming in a parent-coaches relay race. As all present can testify: The long, lean athlete can motor across a 25-meter pool in the time it takes others to pull up Speedos. The kids were in awe. So were the parents.

That the world's greatest swimmer took an interest in a neighborhood swim club reveals something about Mr. Phelps and the family-centered nature of swimming. He was there for Stevie Hansen, the team's 9-year-old phenom, a bright bundle of energy in a crew-cut. The soon-to-be fourth-grader is a speedster in the pool and much loved in the community. He's also a cancer survivor. Rest assured, Stevie will be swimming today and he'll no doubt win his share of ribbons. He may have undergone surgery to his brain and spine and suffered through radiation therapy twice, but don't bet against him in chlorinated water.

Having a child on a swim team is a mixed blessing for a parent. Swimming is not like other youth sports. A meet may require the services of 50 or more parent volunteers. They labor as timers, recordkeepers, judges, organizers, concessionaires and grill cooks. Even the job of a booster is demanding. It means rising at first light on Saturdays, driving to a distant swim club and baking in the sun for five hours. Swim meets have a near-infinite number of races. Your child can be in no more than three. That's four hours, 55 minutes of baking, and five minutes of actual swimming -- the classic recipe for fried Mom and Dad.

It's not just that combination of lost Saturdays and personal hardship that makes the sport so special. In what other athletic endeavor can a 4-year-old and a high school senior be teammates? Where brothers and sisters can actually root for each other? Ill-behaved parents are a rarity -- way too exhausted and bored. Swim meets may be the only sporting events where spectators take time to read their morning newspaper -- cover to cover. And athletes have time for filling snack-bar meals between races.

You have to admire the devotion that it takes to be a swimmer. But more remarkable are parents such as Steve and Betsy Hansen. Behind all the competitors are grown-ups who shuttled them off to practice five days a week, survived the away meets, gushed over their ribbons, and comforted them when they DQ'ed (disqualified) because their stroke wasn't quite to form. Rare are the parents who think their child is the next Michael Phelps. But they all get excited by a good effort -- even if the only victory is over a personal best time.

A Baltimore swim team family is easy to spot. They're the ones who postpone summer vacation until August when there aren't any meets. They own a dozen pair of goggles and six bottles of swimmers' shampoo, and sport temporary tattoos that read, "Go Piranhas." You will almost certainly catch them watching the Olympic swimming on TV in two weeks. They'll be cheering loudly for a favorite son, a golden example to others, Stevie's mentor, one of their own.

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