Not Your Typical Swim Camp

Several years ago the aquatics director asked me if I would be interested in running the swim camp.

“It wouldn’t be your typical swim camp,” I told her. “I don’t want to do freestyle on Monday and backstroke on Tuesday. I’d like it to be fun and a little goofy.”

She let me run with it.

I came up with the theme of “Swim Like a Beast” and chose a different animal for each day: jellyfish, golden retriever, otter, dolphin, and frog.

The best thing that came out of that camp was a game called Otter Island. My friend Katy was helping me. I told her I was thinking about a game like “Sharks and Minnows” (standard pool fare) but we could make it sharks and otters because sharks eat sea otters.

“Yes,” Katy said, “and we could put one of the big mats in to be an island where they could go for safety.”

The kids love climbing on the big floating mats.

The otter island mat

“When they’re on the island,” I said, “they run the risk of being grabbed by an eagle.” I had read that bald eagles predate on otters.

“So we can have kids on the side with noodles to act as eagles,” Katy said. “If they get tapped by a noodle, the eagle got them.”

Before long, we had concocted a game that was fairly crazy and totally fun.

I realized then how fun it is to collaborate with Katy. We both throw ideas around, bouncing them off each other, like the ping-pong balls that sometimes show up in our games.

Katy has ping-pong balls that look like eyeballs. She’s that kind of person.

I’ve never done the same theme twice for swim camp. One year we did Skull camp — and we did lots of sculling, trying to teach kids how to feel the water. One year we did the Incredibles and called it an Incredible Swim Camp.

In fact, as we were putting stuff away on the last day, Katy said to Mat, our other full-time helper with camp, “Next year it’s up to you. You could probably do the Incredible Swim Camp again.”

Mat stopped piling kickboards and said, “Wait — what?! Aren’t you two going to do it?”

Katy said, “No, this is my last year. I only did it so I could work with Sally one more time.”

I laughed. “It’s my last year, too. I only did it so I could work with Katy.”

I love collaborating with Katy.

This year’s camp was called A Quintessential Swim Camp — and we used the five classical elements: earth, water, air, fire, and æther. We did science-y things in and out of the water.

On Thursday night, as we were trying to come up with a bang-up game to end on, Katy and I bounced ideas off each other — and ended up incorporating those ping-pong balls.

“What if we had kids blowing ping-pong balls across the pool –” she said.

“Okay, that’s the air,” I said, mentally check-marking one element.

“And other kids could be splashing them or making waves in the water to make it difficult,” she said.

“That’s water,” I said. “How about it we have a third group of kids pretending they are stuck to the bottom — you know, can’t move — to represent earth?”

“Yeah! And they could be trying to grab the ping-pong ball or tag the person or something,” she said.

“It sounds chaotic,” Mat said — and it was. Chaotically fun.

Swim camp was fun — once we figured out those initial obstacles — but I’m not doing it again.

“I’ve heard that before,” one of my kids said.

This time I mean it.

The Perfect Job

My home away from home. At 5:30 AM, so serene.

“It must be boring,” said one of the swimmers this morning, “just watching people swim back and forth.”

No. It really isn’t. Something about the rhythmic splash-splash-splash of a single person swimming down the pool is very Zen — and I say that in the most Christian way possible.

It’s meditative. Contemplative.

Add in a few more swimmers, each with their own rhythm of splashes, and it’s a trio, a quartet, a quintet.

Musical.

Quiet.

Calming.

I also love my co-workers. I hadn’t realized how much I missed people, until I was spending time in quiet conversation with another lifeguard every weekday morning.

When I go back later in the day to coach, the atmosphere is totally different.

Confusion. Cacophony. Unbridled energy.

Forty to fifty swimmers fill the lanes. The youngest group splashes with their coach in the shallow teaching pool working on skills, or playing a game, or both. A couple of other swimmers practice a specific skill or do a late warm-up in the diving pool. Young swimmers are everywhere.

This, too, is perfect for me. The hustle-bustle-excitement of coaching. Both frustrating and rewarding. A puzzle to solve as I try to figure out what makes each child tick. I watch to see what skills they need to develop, and I fall asleep thinking about how to help one swimmer learn to dive, and another master the breaststroke kick.

Three hours a day. That’s all I work at a paying job.

Don’t tell them — but I think I would do it for free.

Two hours of quiet. One hour of craziness.

A perfect ratio.

And the perfect change of pace to balance out my time as a caregiver.

How did I get so lucky?

 

Summer Swimming

Hitting is like swimming. Once you learn the stroke, you never forget it.

Stan (The Man) Musial, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame 1969

A baseball quote, because Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekend is closing in, but the topic is swimming.

I hadn’t gone swimming in well over a year. Our local pool had been closed, and I’m rather loathe to be seen in a swim suit.

But during my travels, I swam multiple times.

I got in the first time because I was so hot. Leah and I took a kayaking tour around Lokrum Island. The guides had told us the temperature in Celsius which didn’t mean a whole lot to me. 

But it was hot.

On our way around the island, we stopped at a cave. Leah was, I think, the first to hop in the water. Then other people from the group jumped in — so, finally, I joined them. It was so refreshing. Refreshingly cold.

That was swim number one.

A few days later, we walked down a gazillion steps to a little swim area we had noticed on our way to and from the Airbnb.

We got there early. A young woman was doing yoga on the pier while a handful of people were already in the water. Of course, Leah ventured in first. I followed.

Even at 8 AM, Dubrovnik was hot, so the water felt good — cold and refreshing. I swam to the far post, to the mouth of a cave, and back to the post. I hadn’t forgotten how to swim, despite my hiatus.

Swim number three took place during a tour from Mostar. We spent a few hours at a place called Kravice Falls.

Our tour group consisted of Leah, a family of four from Sweden, a young woman who was a recent college graduate, and me.

The two girls from the Swedish family immediately headed for the water. The rest of us sat at a table and ordered some lunch. The girls called and waved to their parents from the water.

“The younger one just learned to swim on this trip,” said the mother.

Subconsciously, I scanned the swim area for lifeguards. Nada.

“A week or so ago, she just decided she would swim,” the mother continued.

There were ropes out in the swim area, but no clear designations what they were all about. People just seemed to swim wherever they wanted.

“There are no lifeguards here,” I said. “Does that make you nervous?”

I asked because it was making me nervous.

“No,” said the mom, “they’ll be fine.”

I realized that Americans are far more safety conscious than the rest of the world.

And that someone who has been a lifeguard/swim instructor/swim coach can’t turn off that part of her brain.

I swam at Kravice Falls with the young woman who was part of our group. We got in the middle of the swim area on our way to the falls, and she said, “I’m feeling really panicky. I don’t think I can make it.”

We stopped and treaded water for a while. Right there, in the middle, we paused and talked. I told her that I was a swim coach. I asked her about her life. I watched the anxiety dissolve before we continued to the falls where we sat on a rock together and let the water beat down on our backs.

My fourth swim was at a lake in Bosnia.

One of the men from Gradacac had made arrangements for us to visit a scuba club. At a lake. In Bosnia.

We didn’t scuba, but we did go out on a boat tour of the lake.

Our sweet translator, Amina, didn’t know how to swim, so she put on a life jacket. And clutched Nicole’s leg.

I reminded her to breathe. And took lousy pictures of her.

After the boat ride, I swam out in the lake. It was cool (not cold, like the Adriatic) and refreshing.

Swimming again gave me great satisfaction.

I hadn’t forgotten how.

I still loved it.

Now that the pool has reopened, I need to get back.

Safe and Swim

Originally my plan was to write about “safe” for the letter S.

About a month ago, I overheard a conversation while waiting for my father. He was visiting friends and I was sitting in the front lobby of the nursing home after an unsuccessful attempt to visit Mary  Three octogenarianesses (octogenarianettes?) sat down opposite me.

Their conversation was at an octogenarian level, so I couldn’t help but overhear.

“I just need to feel SAFE,” one said. “That’s why I would come HERE.”

The last word of every sentence was the loudest, and I found it an interesting way to punctuate.

A different lady, the one they were visiting who was obviously a resident, said, “My children kept telling me that I couldn’t do this, that, or the other thing. After I fell…” Her voice trailed off and she spread her arms to highlight the wheelchair she was in.

The third woman said, “I just don’t have the pep to do everything at home any more.”

“When the house sells, I’m coming HERE,” said loud-final-word.

Resident lady said, “I should have come here when I was 70. Now I’m 87, going on 88.”

#3 said, “It’s at the point where I have to do something.”

Loud said, “SAFE. I just need to feel SAFE.”

But as my mind wandered over this “safe” conversation, I thought about Laurel’s water safety presentation that she’s working on, and I thought about how I missed swimming now that it’s over and the pool is closed, and I thought about how unsafe the water can be and water safety is so important and… you see the currents that my mind drifted along, like a lazy river ride that had no definite end.

So S is also for Swimming.

My parents made sure we all could swim — and I’m sure my love of the water began at a very early age.

Mom and Stewart

Mom and Stewart

Mom and Stewart, Donabeth, and Peter

Mom with Stewart, Donabeth, and Peter

The only picture I could find of me. What form!

The only picture I could find of me. What form!

I can remember being in the watch-me stage when I was about 5 at Mirror Lake at Fort Devens. My mom was sitting on the beach and I was in the shallow water, stretching my legs out behind and walking my hands along the bottom.

“Look, Mom! I’m swimming,” I called, but I’m sure I didn’t fool her for a moment.

I remember playing and playing in the water — and I think that may be why I’m a big proponent for kids playing in the water. Kids can learn so much through play.

The thing is, though, water is never really safe. Kids drown in small amounts of water. Elite-level swimmer Fran Crippen drowned in an open water race. Being around water requires vigilance.

Bodies of water are like Aslan — not safe.

But good.

Each time a swimmer slides into the water, he or she is baptized into a new way of moving and breathing.

I think that’s why I love it.

That’s why I go to the POOL.

Bridget

Yesterday, my friend Laura Lynn Brown launched a new site: makesyoumom.com.

I have previously written about how I met Laura at Laity Lodge.

I was honored that she asked me if I would be willing to submit a piece for her new site, so I found an old piece I had written, dusted it off a little, and sent it to her.  I was even more honored when she decided to include it in her launch.

quiltsquareMomswimcoach” was written about my time coaching the Cooperstown Girls Varsity Swim Team.

Feeling nostalgic, I pulled out another piece written about that era and read through it.

Gosh, those were the days.

No, they weren’t, really.  They were hard and stressful. I was in my forties, pregnant for some of it, working outside the home for the first time in decades, trying to homeschool, and still in the wake of the storm I mentioned yesterday.

But Bridget — Bridget was a gift to me.

She was a high school girl with a sunny smile, a giving soul, and Rocky Balboa’s work ethic.

When I started coaching, I had no experience coaching anything ever. Yes, I was a swimmer.  Yes, I was a swim official.  Yes, my children swam.  Did that make me a coach?  No.  Yet there I was, on deck, being called “Coach” by eighteen girls, one of them named Bridget.

I threw myself into coaching to the best of my ability.  I used workouts that the previous coach had left me, started watching videos on teaching the different strokes, researched swimming on the internet, and shamelessly asked other coaches how they did things.

The girls knew I was new. Some used it to get out of work.  The most common technique was to negotiate during practice.

Negotiations would go something like this.

Swimmer:  Coach, do we really have to do 10 100s of freestyle?

Me: Is that what I wrote on the board?

Swimmer:  Yes, but I was thinking, maybe I could just do 5 50s of butterfly since that’s what I’ll be swimming in the meet.

Pushover me:  Sure, I guess so.

Or,

Swimmer:  Coach, do we really have to do a 200 kick?

Me:  I was thinking we need to work on our kicking.

Swimmer:  I have this blister on my foot from some new shoes and kicking hurts.  Can I just do a 100 pull?

Pushover me:  Sure, I guess so.

Eventually, I started to catch on.  Only certain girls asked me and without exception they were negotiating for something easier.  Also, as I planned out the practices, I became more and more keyed into what I wanted to work on and what I wanted the team to accomplish over the course of the season.

The more I grew as a coach, the more the negotiating irked me.  I started to say no to all negotiations.

One day, when the chief negotiator began to propose her own sets, I said no, but she continued whining and wheedling.   Something in me snapped.  I took off my whistle, handed it to her, saying, “Apparently you know more about coaching than I do,” and walked off the deck.

Bridget came and found me in the locker room. “Mrs. Zaengle, I’m so sorry,” she said.

I looked at her – Bridget, who never gave me a problem, never questioned anything I asked her to do, was apologizing to me.

She followed up that verbal apology with a letter that she had every girl on the team sign.  In the letter they thanked me for my time and my efforts; they apologized for not respecting me; they promised to work hard for me.

I think that was the day I realized what a gift Bridget was to me.

She worked so hard at every practice.  Sometimes, in my quest for sets, I went to college sites and selected sets that were probably too hard for the girls.  One of those times, I looked at Bridget’s flushed cheeks mid-set, realizing how hard the practice was.

“Let’s change the interval, Bridget, or shorten the set,” I said.

“No, Mrs. Zaengle,” was her reply.  “I can do it.”

And she did.

She worked, and her work was a joy to me.  Even when I messed up.  Even when what I asked was unreasonable.  Bridget was a gift.

Bridget’s attitude was infectious, too.  I noticed more and more of the girls adopting her positive ways.

In the end, the team and I had the relationship described in Momswimcoach. That was a gift, too.

And Laura Brown? She’s also a gift. Encouraging me to keep trying.

We’re surrounded by people who are gifts. I’m quite sure of that. We just don’t always recognize them.