Back To The Pool

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On January 24 of this year, I jumped into a swimming pool and swam laps for the first time in many, many years.

It felt great—for about one and a half laps. Then the pain started, and once it started it didn’t go away. I managed to complete 1,000 yards that day, but I don’t think I swam more than 75 yards at a time. In between, there were lots of breaks to catch my breath and to remind my arms that they really do know how to do this.

Two days later, I was sore, but I was back. This time, I was able to make myself do “repeats” of 100 yards—four laps—separated by easy 50s, either swimming breaststroke or kicking with a kickboard. Stopping for a breather after each 100 or 50, of course. It wasn’t pretty, but it was progress.

Growing Up In Pools

Between the ages of about 10 and 23, much of my life was spent in swimming pools. I joined the local swim club the summer after fourth grade, and swam summers for a couple of years before starting to swim year-round. But it was years and years before I really got the hang of it. In high school, I wound up swimming distance freestyle, mostly without distinction.

After high school, I went to Missouri U., where I had no shot at making the swim team. But I did keep swimming—evenings, during open swim. I found it was a great way to both keep in shape and blow off college stress, just doing my own workouts without a coach barking at me.

After a couple of years at Mizzou, though, the weight of the big university was getting a little much for me, and I switched to North Central College—about a tenth the size of Mizzou—where suddenly I could be an editor on the school newspaper and be on the swimming team.

So for the last two years of my college career, I was a swimmer again, and in many ways it was the best two years of my life.

At North Central we didn’t do the crazy yardage that some swim teams were doing those days—we’d get in about 5,000–6,000 yards a day as I recall—but our workouts were intense, with lots of high-quality sprint work. During the height of the training season, the cumulative fatigue clouded everything we did. Too tired to study, too muscle-twitchy to sleep. The payoff, though, came at the end of the season, with the magical taper before the conference meet, when the workouts were cut back and suddenly we had all of the energy we’d been lacking for the previous three months. In my senior year, that taper led to the best swimming meet of my entire life, where I dropped my times like crazy, and had a lot of fun doing it.

But after the intensity of my two years swimming at North Central, and after more than a decade spent in swimming pools, I was ready to get out of the water. I took up running to stay in shape and to satisfy my competitive urges. I realized that hey, you could work out AND see the world at the same time. In a pool, you can only see what is within nine walls—the four walls and bottom of the pool, and the four walls of the natatorium. Within those walls, your vision is further limited by your goggles, which, besides restricting your field of view, more often than not get fogged up within a lap or two. Any entertainment during a long swim pretty much has to be supplied by your own imagination.

But with running, you can take in a lot more. Until I started running, I had no idea how boring swimming had been.

Hoofin’ It

So for the next 30 years or so, I pounded ground and took part in running races of every distance from the mile to the marathon—just once, for the marathon—but mostly stuck to 5Ks, 10Ks and half-marathons.

But while running gives you more in-flight entertainment, it does carry its risks. Namely, all that pounding. I had a couple of stints on the DL—i.e., physical therapy—once for a bad knee and once for a herniated disc. But I recovered, and in 2015 I was having a pretty good running year, including three half-marathons in the spring.

But on one run in September, it all came crashing down, with an acute pain in my calf near the end of the run. The pain mostly stopped when I stopped running, but when I tried again a day or so later, it returned immediately, and I knew my running was done for a few weeks.

And as it turned out, I was finished for the rest of the year. My calf recovered, more or less, but then I caught a nasty cold. And whenever I would try to run, I would get some kind pain in my lower legs: calf, knee, ankle, whatever. Something was always hurting. I heard the message loud and clear—these old legs have had about enough running.

Back To The Pool

So it was back to the pool. I made it a New Year’s resolution to start swimming again, but it took me more than three weeks after the new year to actually get up the guts to join the YMCA and get in the water.

It was painful at first, as I knew it would be. But with each workout, I was gradually able to do a little longer swims without resting, and a little longer total yardage for the day.

One gratifying thing: even if my arms and shoulders would turn to jelly in a short time, I still had my flip turns. It was almost like I’d never left the pool in the first place; with the very first time I approached a wall, I knew exactly how to adjust my last stroke, and then duck my head, flip over, twist and then bounce off the wall. After doing millions of them as a kid, I guess the movement has become imprinted in me. That was a pleasant surprise.

I kept up with it. After a few weeks, I was up to 2,000 yards per session. That’s barely a warmup for world-class swimmers, but enough for me to feel like I’ve had a good workout, and is a decent yardage for the amount of time I usually have available. I’ll go longer if I can.

One day in late March, I had some extra time and I pushed the total a little, and also, for the first time, swam a 500 freestyle without stopping. It felt remarkably good, and as I got down to about four laps to go, I felt just as strong as I had on the first lap. I decided to find out just how strong I actually was. After the turn to start the last 50, I hit the gas, accelerating steadily through the penultimate lap until I was going at just about Top Speed—faster than I had swum in decades—as I approached the last turn. I executed a perfect turn, got a strong push-off, grabbed a powerful pull to bring myself to the surface, easily resumed Top Speed for a few strokes and then pushed it to Beyond Top Speed, and it still felt perfect. I was gliding along, high in the water, my turnover furious but mechanics not degrading at all. It was like the second-best feeling in the world. I slammed into the wall at the end, heart pounding and lungs heaving, and it felt like I was back in college. It had taken me a couple of months, but I could swim again.

Of course, I know that the “now” me would appear to be treading water against the 35-years-ago me. I know that, even if I could survive a season of the training rigor we went through in college, I wouldn’t approach the kind of times I swam then. But just to be able to touch that feeling of sprinting full out again was something special. The goals are different now: I just hope to get, and stay, in some semblance of “shape,” and maybe to stave off the grave for a few extra minutes. And if I can enjoy it while I’m doing it, so much the better.

The Dilemma

The last few years, I’ve been attending quite a few of Washington University’s basketball games. My dad’s a fan and has gone to almost every game for years; my brother goes to most. The coach is a member of their our church. And for the last three years, the son of my good friends Kurt and Sue has been playing for Wash. U. as a point guard.

Plus, they play some exciting basketball, and this year in particular, it’s been very good basketball, good enough to win their conference and make it into the NCAA Division III tournament. They’re even a host site for the first weekend of games, with a four-team mini-bracket playing tonight and tomorrow night.

However…

One of the other teams in the bracket is North Central College of Naperville, Ill. And North Central happens to be my Alma Mater. It’s where I spent the last two years of my swimming career. At one time, for a conference swimming meet, I had a large picture of a Cardinal drawn in ink on my back. Another time, I shaved my head. North Central is where I first received actual money (though not much) for working in journalism. It’s where, in two years, I learned more about economics than fully half the current members of Congress.

And North Central College is where I met my future wife.

Tonight, March 2, is the prelims of the four-team subregional. (Like the NCAA Division I tournament, the Division III tournament has six rounds of games, to whittle [about] 64 teams down to one champion). North Central will play against the Fightin’ Engineers of Rose Hulman Institute of Technology at 5:30 p.m., and Wash. U. will take on Buena Vista University at 7:30 p.m. It should be a fun night: two intense games in a row.

BUT, if NCC and WU both win tonight, that means they’ll meet tomorrow night in a battle to make it to the “Sweet 16” of the tournament. It’s obviously going to be a dilemma for me. I’ll have to go the game and try to root for BOTH teams, which probably sounds easier than it is. Sporting events, and perhaps basketball games in particular, are much more enjoyable if you have a rooting interest in one team or another. By definition, it’s essentially impossible to root for both teams at once.

Oh well, that’s the proverbial bridge that I’ll cross when I come to it. At least tonight, I can be happily partisan during both games and just enjoy them, rooting for my team in each one.

*****

Friday night update: Well, it’s all playing out according to form. North Central won an intensely exciting game, 74-71, and then Washington U. won relatively easily, 71-59. So my Alma Mater and my new adopted team will meet tomorrow night in a game that will end one of their seasons. Either way, though, I’ll have something to celebrate.

A Christmas Card

This year, I’ve been looking back at  the year 1980. There’s one more story before the year winds down.

*****

North Central College is laid out predominantly in a narrow north-south strip, with the athletic facilities at the south end, and the library and a couple of the dorms at the far north end. My first term there, I lived on the third floor of Seager Hall, which was fairly close to the south end, and near the all-campus Kaufman Dining Hall. My room was on the north side of the building, so in the evenings from my window, I could see all of the students walking back from dinner to their night classes, the library or their dorms up campus.

It sure beat looking across at my assigned roommate’s wall, which was adorned with a large Confederate flag.

Studying in my room was not possible, partly since the same roommate who hung the rebel flag also had a big television set, which he used a lot. I found early on that the best place to study was at the library, so it became a regular trek for me up to the north end of campus. It was kind of a lonely, dark, walk, though, and it was always nice to have someone to talk to along the way. Sometimes, from my northside perch, I would watch for people I knew, and then hustle down the stairs and catch up with them and share the walk.

For me, that first semester, most of the “people I knew” were swimmers. Once training begins, swimming pretty much takes over your life, and your circle of acquaintances becomes smaller and tighter. Almost all of the early friends I made there were swimmers, from both the men’s and women’s teams, since the two teams naturally tended to hang out a lot together.

A few of those evenings, I found myself walking up campus with Jean, a junior on the women’s team. She lived in Kimmel Hall at the far north end, and always seemed receptive to a little friendly conversation along the way. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a terribly long walk to the library, so we didn’t exchange life histories or anything, but we did begin to develop a friendship.

The fall trimester played out. We had a swimming meet or two, then finals, and then the swimming teams headed for Florida. Jean didn’t go to Fort Lauderdale that year, for one reason or another; I think they had a family ski vacation planned later in December. After our Florida trip, the men’s team went back to Naperville for a week of training, and then one meet — the Rockford Relays — before I went back home to St. Louis for winter break.

NCC did pretty well at the meet. I’m not sure if we won the overall meet, but I was on one winning relay; I know this because I still have the award: a engraved mug. For the last 20 years, it has held pens and pencils on my desk at work. (OK, I see the official name of the meet was the “Regent Invitational.” Trust me, everyone called it the Rockford Relays.)

Rockford, Ill., is not far from Woodstock, Ill., which is where Jean lived, and she came to the meet to watch. I got a chance to chat with her a little, during those long breaks between races that characterize swimming meets. We compared Florida stories: mine from the trip just completed, hers from previous years. When the meet was over, we wished each other merry Christmas and happy travels, and said we’d see each other after the break.

I went back home to St. Louis to get ready for Christmas. By now it was just mid-December, so I was able to get an early start on my shopping.

A few days before Christmas, a card arrived for me in the mail. It was a Christmas card, from Jean. Nothing fancy, just a nice little card, with a short note to wish me a merry Christmas. Now, I was a guy in college;  nobody sent me cards, so it made quite an impression. I’m not going to say that Christmas card changed the course of history — I’m guessing Jean and I would have ended up together that next trimester anyway — but I will say it definitely made my holiday, and gave me a reason to look forward to getting back to NCC after the break.

The rest of the story, you probably know: before the end of January, we were together as boyfriend/girlfriend. After we graduated in 1982, we had a long-distance relationship for several years — lots of mail back and forth between us during that period, as you might imagine — until we finally got married in 1986. This coming summer, we’ll celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.

Merry Christmas from Shoulblog!

1980: A New Setting

I’ve gotten a little behind in my reliving the year 1980, so will try to catch up a little bit here.

In September, I went away to college. Yes, I had done this before—to Missouri University in 1977—but Mizzou was sort of the expected thing to do, and I knew a lot of people there. I had fun during my five semesters in Columbia, but ultimately Mizzou turned out to be just too big for me. I left halfway through my third year and looked for someplace smaller.

I found North Central College in Naperville, Ill. At about 2,000 students, NCC was about 1/10th the size of Mizzou. I didn’t know a soul there when I moved in, but oddly, I don’t remember that fact bothering me at all; instead, I think I welcomed the chance to make a new start.

A big part of my new college experience was going to be swimming. After being on swim teams from 4th grade through high school, I “retired” after my senior year, because there was no way I was going to make the Mizzou squad. But with the change to the smaller, Division III school, swimming was front-and-center again. I was welcomed onto the team, and immediately had a group of people to hang out with. I also offered up my services to the Chronicle, the NCC student newspaper, and they put me to work right away writing articles. So almost immediately, I was immersed in activities that were beyond my reach at Mizzou.

It was a good fall. I was getting to know a few people and was pretty much enjoying the college experience. I rode the BN commuter train into Chicago for a couple of concerts—Jethro Tull at the Rosemont, and the Police at the Aragon Ballroom. I was reading a lot of Hunter Thompson. And every afternoon, there were two hours of very intense swimming workouts; I was getting into the best shape of my life.

*****

In 1976, I had turned 17, still too young to vote in that year’s election. 1980 would be my first chance to vote for a president. Unfortunately, 1980 was also the year that President Jimmy Carter pulled the United States out of the Moscow Olympics to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. Now, I’ve always loved politics, but I’ve also always loved the Olympics. That spring, I wrote a letter to Time Magazine  registering my protest over the Olympics boycott. “President Carter has lost my vote…” the letter began. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever written a letter to the editor, certainly the only one to a national publication. They didn’t publish it, but I’d made a commitment. And that fall, when it came time to send for an absentee ballot and fill it out, I cast my vote for the independent, John Anderson. I knew full well that my vote would result in the lesser of the major-party candidates being elected, but I wanted to make sure that President Carter got the message.

(Somehow, though, he never got back to me to apologize about the Olympics thing; and he seems to think that the economy was the reason he lost the election.)

I had a class on election night. It finished up about 8:30. I rushed back to my room to start watching the election returns come in. But as soon as I walked in the door, my roommate gave me the news: Carter was already conceding. At North Central, at that time, if you were 21 you were allowed to have alcohol in your room. I’m guessing I had some that night, because I have no memory of the rest of the night. That election, my first presidential vote, was the only time I’ve ever cast a ballot for a third-party candidate, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever do it again.

*****

The North Central swim teams had a tradition of going to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a team training trip each winter. The school’s first trimester ends just before Thanksgiving, and the Florida trip is the following week. I took the Amtrak home from Chicago, and then on Sunday, November 30—thirty years ago today!—I took my first plane trip: St. Louis to Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale. Coming in for the landing, I also got my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, or any ocean for that matter. That night, a few of us would run across the road and dive into the water,  swim in the crashing waves, figure out how to body surf. My baptism, as it were, at 21 years old.

July 1980

Several key events from July of 1980, continuing my 30-years-ago reminiscenses:

• Sometime around the middle of the month, I saw the Doobie Brothers in concert, with my old Mizzou roommate Bob. This was at the Checkerdome, like the earlier Who concert was, and again we had floor seats. From what I remember, it was a great show.

Interestingly, it now appears I’ll be seeing the Doobie Brothers again in a few days — almost exactly 30 years after that Checkerdome show. It’s an interesting question as to whether rock bands should even EXIST for 30 years.

• A day or so after the concert, both I and my brother Jim took trips that would help define the rest of our lives. In his case, he moved away from St. Louis for what turned out to be the last time. Until then he had lived in several places, including Boston and Provincetown. He wasn’t entirely comfortable in St. Louis, I know, and finally he packed up and moved back to P-Town. We were able to spend a lot of time together that spring — we were both helping out in my dad’s business — but those times were coming to an end.

• And I got in a car with my parents and drove to Naperville, Ill., the home of North Central College. After leaving Missouri University in December ’79, I was looking for a smaller school where I could, perhaps, be more be more visible than at a mega-sized university. I swam, that spring, with an AAU team in Clayton, Mo., just to keep in shape; they practiced at Clayton High School, and on the bulletin board of the pool were tacked several college brochures. One of them was NCC. Comparing my times with the school and conference records shown in the brochure, I thought it was someplace I could be reasonably competitive. One thing led to another. I talked on the phone with the coach a time or two, applied and was accepted. That mid-July trip was for the orientation and registration. I met with Dr. Van der Muellen in the economics department. (He thought it a little odd that I said that in addition to an econ major, I might also pursue a sociology minor. He did end up being my favorite econ professor at NCC, though.) I spent the night in one of the dorms — me and mostly a bunch of incoming freshmen. And on the second day, I finally saw the pool. Through the magic of wide-angle photography, it looked much bigger and nicer in the brochure photo than in real life. And I met the coach, who was just as nice in person as on the phone. On the whole, it looked like a school I could like.

• Also that month, I turned 21. But perhaps the less written about the destruction of that day, the better.