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Swimming against the current: getting down to business and gearing up for swim meets

Preparing for a college swim meet consists of sprint swimming, refining stroke technique and lifting weights for overall strength. (Kurt Loeffler)

I’m a few weeks into being a part of the Mills College swim team, and so far I have managed to survive practices six days per week.

However, survival may soon get a bit hairier.

We’ve been practicing for our swim meet in Los Angeles on Jan. 28 and 29. As the days get closer and closer, the tension continues to build.

So what does it take to prepare for a college swim meet?

Happiness is being decked out in head to toe Mills College swim team gear.

I’ve never been a jock, but I’ve always been envious of athletes representing their team in polyester suits.

And now I’m one of those people; I get to swagger around campus in a navy blue track suit with a matching backpack, both displaying “Mills College Swim Team” in white thread. You might even catch me wearing my thick over-sized parka as well.

I’ve been doing more than just checking myself out in the mirror in my TYR tracksuit, though.

I’ve spent hours in the pool refining my flip turns and strokes, getting ready for our swim meet in Los Angeles against other colleges including Cal Tech, Whittier, Occidental, Chapman, Vanguard and Biola.

Plus, I feel like I have a purpose, a goal now. Why? I have a specific event to work towards for our swim meet: the 500 and 1000 freestyle events, along with shorter distances in freestyle and breaststroke.

Frankly, I’m pretty excited about the distance events. While most events consist of 50 to 100 yards, the 500 free is 20 lengths of the pool, the 1000 free is 40 lengths. It’s a mental test, a balance of sprinting and endurance. Now why would I want to subject myself to such brutal agony?

First thing’s first. I know my stroke is funky; my stroke, flip turns and kicks aren’t the sharpest they can be. And sprinting is all about finesse after all. The 50 free is an event done in less than thirty seconds, so everything has to be perfect. There’s no room for error when you’re in and out in less than a minute.

With the 500 and 1000 free, I have room for error.

I’m also used to distance. I did a couple mile races with my parents growing up, swimming my first when I was 10. We swam around the Santa Cruz Wharf; I was the youngest  person there and I won a medal (mind you, I was the only one in my age group.) Still, a mile was no big deal. It was kind of fun.

And even though there’s more pressure at a swim meet, I know I have endurance at least. If I raced a mile when I was 10, I sure hope I can swim around a third of a mile now.

Most of all, though, I enjoy the internal journey of swimming distance. I often create songs in my head when I swim, a sort of fugal modulation I’ll repeat to myself over and over again. When I swim distance, I’m reminded why I’m in the pool in the first place: because I like to swim.

Preparing for these long courses is a complex system. It consists of refining my technique as much as possible with drills, getting faster with sprinting on specific intervals and lifting weights to build some muscle.

It also means actually learning how to dive off the starting block, the white stand mounted at the end of the pool used to start races. We had to dive off the blocks about a week into practice. I was so afraid of diving into the pool head first that I’d repeatedly belly flop into the water, my stomach red with pain.

Our assistant coach Merritt Lander pulled me aside one day and had me repeatedly dive into the pool just from the side, letting my body naturally fall after my head. I eventually began gliding in, the impact of belly flopping receding into the distance.

I got onto the block and dove right in. I gently streamed through the water, preparing  to take my first stroke.

I bobbed up in the middle of the pool and turned back.

“I did it!”  I said, an enormous smile on my face.

I was just happy I probably wouldn’t look like the ridiculous newbie drowning first thing at the swim meet in Los Angeles.

But if I do drown, at least I had the chance to wear head to toe Mills gear, swaggering on the pool deck like the hippest jock on the block.

Read the rest of the series

Swimming against the current:
1.) Becoming a college athlete
2.) Getting down to business and gearing up for swim meets
3.) How to win a swim meet
4.) The final race