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from A Squandered Life / Competitive Swimming '66

Updated on February 26, 2016
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Born without a clue. A lifetime later, situation largely unchanged. Nevertheless, one perseveres.....

….I flapped up and down that cursed pool like a dying flounder.

The other upshot was that Drinkwater had spotted me swimming (before I was engaged in perpetual pool battle) and approached Donny to sound me out about trying out for the swim team. I initially poo-pooed the idea, but sometime after the christmas lay off, in the absence of evening pool battles, I decided to give it a go. I think what may have decided it was Donny telling me that there was a trip to Mount Alison University (New Brunswick) in the offing and that we would be flown out and put up in hotels.

I remember, when I first met him, being struck by how fit and glossy Donny managed to look despite all the laying about and drinking and farting with Dave in the confines of their pungent room. His eyes, in particular, had a slightly unsettlingly healthy lustre to them which I couldn't fathom. After my first two hour pool session with the varsity team I understood. When I came out my eyes were streaming and continued to stream well into the following days as they tried to compensate for all the chlorine in the pool. In my classes and seminars people thought I was bereaved or going through some kind of tough emotional time. “You'll get used to it,” the swimmers kept saying and, after an agonising couple of weeks or so, I suppose I did. My chemically scoured and polished eyeballs slowly took on the eerie lustre of a competitive swimmer. But that wasn't the only agony. Those guys just kept swimming lengths and lengths and lengths and lengths. Drinkwater would stand on the poolside watching and occasionally pull someone over for a quiet word; then set them off again on the endless swim. I had a new found respect for Donny who had been doing this all year, and he kept me interested and encouraged with a mix of bad jokes and useful tips. As the trip to Mount Alison drew near, Drinkwater initiated morning sessions as well, so we were swimming four to six hours every bleeding day.

Based on my experience of the St Lawrence River, I'd always assumed I was a pretty good swimmer, and assumed Drinkwater also thought so, but I was wrong on both counts. After a couple of sessions - in which I also discovered my front crawl was called “free style” - he called me to the side of the pool and said, “You're a strong swimmer but your strokes are inefficient.” Exhausted and red-eyed and more than a little exasperated I sputtered, “Well why did you want me on the team then?” “Because you're strong and you're not afraid of a bit of pain,” (which was news to me) “and all you need is a some technique.” He then demonstrated, in the dry, from the poolside (I never ever saw the man wet), how he wanted me to keep my hands at all times flat to the direction of travel on the end of arms that at all times stayed as close to the body as possible. He pointed out, “When you deploy your arms like this, you get an improved mechanical advantage and improved resistant surface area, and therefore thrust, in the mid section of the stroke.” I sort of grasped what he was on about, but as I tried to apply his advice my stroke fell completely apart and I flapped up and down that cursed pool like a dying flounder. Whereas before I could more or less keep up with Donny (who was probably loafing) I now found I couldn't even keep up with the breast strokers. But Drinkwater kept saying, “Good, good, you're doing well.” He clinched it by screening clips of film showing well-known Olympian swimmers shot from underwater and illustrating their strokes and turns. With this graphic evidence, I persisted and slowly my times began to improve and my re-assembled stroke began to feel natural. I found myself being propelled through the water with a certainty and authority I couldn't have imagined.

I never won anything though, and our team was pretty third rate, but I later discovered that Drinkwater's plans went far beyond us. He used occasionally to bring young boys and girls, aged I guess from about six to twelve, to watch us training. These were his real hopefuls, and one of them, Mark, who was destined to become a Maritime champion, years and years later told me what an impression those visits had made on him as a boy. He would stand there watching what looked like full grown men putting in their hours. He recalled Donny and I swimming over, already pooped and near the end of our session, to the side to ask Drinkwater “What next?” Drinkwater thought a moment and then, in the boy's presence, said, “Okay, just do another 100 (lengths) then get your showers.” Mark watched us roll our eyes and probably swear, “But what really struck me was that you actually went off and did it. Drinkwater was showing me “the norm”, and I was inspired and drawn into a better understanding of the kind of work that was called for.”

© 2013 Deacon Martin

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