Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Glimmer of Hope in Textile

My old college coach stopped me at a high school meet to ask me what I thought about the decision to take the shiny suits away. Apparently he doesn’t read my blog. He is a suit fan. He thinks they were good for the sport and he listed some pretty valid reasons.

I replied that I wasn’t sure whether it was the right decision to take tech away but that I am curious to see where it goes. I remember saying that we might see a psychological phenomenon. You see, now that all these swimmers have gone so darn fast with the suits, I was anticipating that there might be some swimmers who can’t deal with not going best times after going back to textile. I know a few swimmers who will probably struggle because they will not be able to rationalize it and will be tied to unrealistic expectations… and I could see them getting discouraged enough to consider hanging it all up.

But then, there was the other side of it. I had to wonder, how many swimmers will expect to keep swimming those fast times… and then live up to it?

Last year, at the Missouri high school boys championships, the talk on the deck was that swimming in our state had taken a real step up. It wasn’t about the winning times. I believe that only two state records were broken, and they were in relays. What struck us all was the depth. There were times that would have won events just a few years before that would not have even made the top 8. It was fascinating. I know that I felt that we were part of something really special for our area. We all were pointing at the suits; not as the only reason Missouri was getting better, but as a catalyst that helped us move a few years ahead of ourselves since the 2007 meet.

Then this year, in 2009, even with the suits taken away, we actually got better.

In 2008, there were an amazing 12 swimmers in the 50 hitting 21’s… and this year there were 15! Last year, 7 swimmers turned in 47 in the 100, and this year there were 9!

In '08, the KC Rockhurst boys were given a hard time when they broke the state record in the 400 free relay by three seconds. They were called cheaters in the comments section of the floswimming coverage of the event. They were swimming “enhanced” because they were all wearing tech, and somehow that meant that their record shouldn‘t count. It was the same disgusting treatment Dana Vollmer and others got when they broke NCAA records. That rotten behavior by swim fans was so disappointing.

This year, Rockhurst got to do something really rare at our championships. They came back and proved that they own that 400 record without a doubt. They broke it again, in textile jammers! For me, it would have been enough for them to take the old record of 3:08 just to hush the nay-sayers. That should have been enough to prove that the 400 free relay record rightfully belongs to them. But they didn’t stop there. They took it further by going eight tenths of a second faster than they did with their fancy pants on. 3:05.14! And when I asked them about it, they said that they had forgotten that they had even been criticized at all. They just wanted to go best times, just like every swimmer at every level, since our beautiful sport began.

Wild. Right on. Way to go, guys!

Maybe, just maybe, Aaron Peirsol has made up his mind that he is still a 1:51 200 lcm backstroker. Is it possible that he doesn’t intend to start over in the 1:54 range? That maybe he has the same mindset that swimmers develop as 8& unders going after those best time iron-ons for their t-shirts? Maybe Ariana Kukors will go into her first race of 2010 with the confidence of a 2:06 IM’er. And can you imagine Fred Bousquet ever letting it settle in his mind that the world is going back to a time when it was an exclusive club of just a handful who are capable of getting their fingertips to the end of the long course pool in under 22 seconds? The world class pack is no longer full of 22’s with a few 21’s sprinkled on top. 21’s are now the whipped cream, and a 20.9 is now the cherry on top. In Fred’s mind, I don’t think that will change. (Of course, if he is gonna go faster than a 20.9, he better do it in a brief, because Craig Lord will have his dirty, cheating head if he wears a jammer.)

Maybe, just maybe, the suits have opened a psychological door that might have taken a lot longer for us to open otherwise. Kind of like the guy who finally cracked the four minute mile on the track. How many people realized they could do it only after they had seen it done? Wouldn’t that effect magnify a little when you have seen yourself do it, rather than someone else?

Sports psychology is fascinating. The bar was raised partly due to technology, but are we really certain that the bar has to come back down without it?

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