Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Swim Beginnings: The Viking

I had to slash my way through the forest to get to swim practice every morning. You can't see it, but I am standing on a grizzly bear I had just killed for almost making me late.

How did I start swimming? Well, the way everyone in Petersburg, Alaska did: through elementary school classes. This was the reason our little tiny island of 3000 people tucked away in the Tongass National Rainforest constantly developed good swimmers. Our school started their talent selection process in Pre-K. Russia modeled their sports school system after us. Seriously. We had a great thing going up there. 

Of course we were more hardcore than the Russians. My first actual swim team practice was at 5:30 in the morning. I am not exaggerating. I got my 8 year old butt out of bed and walked through the snow and darkness almost a mile to the pool just for a chance to try out. You see, for a short while our town actually had two swim clubs and the one I tried first was only able to secure pool time before school.

The Vikings were the established club that started when the pool was built in 1974 and was coached by the school swim teacher. The other was the Porpoises, which was started by the families who were mad at that coach and thought they could do it better. Why? Well, don’t quote me on this because I am not sure of the details, but I heard it was because he accidentally said a bad word in front of one of the kids once and that prompted our little seasonal-affective town to split down the middle. The weirdest part is, the families who split off were mostly fishing families. It’s not like those guys never cuss, right? Seriously, spend one week out long-lining for halibut and you will be a lifetime potty mouth with no chance for rehabilitation. You haven't been really cussed at until you have had your butt chewed by a 70 year old fisherman who swears in a Norwegian/English slurry.

I only showed up for the Porpoises’ practice one time. I wasn’t quite ready to give up my incredibly successful T-ball pitching career yet. (Really. I was the pitcher because, you know… they control the game.) It wasn’t too long after that I came back to swimming. The coach for the Vikings, Chris Erickson, stopped me on the steps of the playground and said “Hey. You need to be on swim team. You could be pretty good.” That’s all it took: someone showed a little interest and opened the door. Suddenly the pool-rat/t-ball hero became a real swim-teamer.

The weekend that is the most crystal clear for me regarding my initial love of racing was my first real championship at age 10 in Anchorage. JO’s was the Alaska age group state meet and I had huge time drops to pick up 2nd place in the 50 fly (to Eric VanDyke with a 34.85-- yes, I still remember the time) and 4th in the 50 free. I can still see the blurry T at the end of the lane and I can still picture looking around and not seeing the usual guys ahead of me.  It felt so damn good to swim fast, even without goggles back in the day! I bet I looked at those results on the wall a hundred times that weekend just because I could not believe how awesome I was. Even more important to the story is that the friends I made on that weekend from all over the state ended up being friends for life. One was even my college roommate during my freshman year at MSU. Alaska swimming really found ways to bring kids together to get to know each other.

My start in the sport was the beginning of many beautiful friendships… and to be honest, I am still making new friends in this sport every week with swimmers, parents, coaches and fans. What an awesome sport to be a part of.


  1. I was all set to be excited that you were a fellow (Michigan State) Spartan alum for a moment until remembering that you more likely meant Missouri State. That's okay, my MSU isn't exactly well-known for its swim team.

    So based on your photo, can I tell my sword- and shield-loving 5-year-old that his costuming and warrior play skills will help him improve his swimming? ;)

  2. yes, Missouri State.
    and of course the horned helmet helps. have him watch my alumni video. ;)

  3. or maybe not... it probably ain't appropriate for a 5 year old. or anybody for that matter.

  4. I'm just glad this isn't depressing like DeSantis'. I think Timo should be able to find some inspiration here, Robin!