Thursday, February 22, 2007

Living in the Past

With what measure ye mete, it shall be
measured to you again.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is
in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the
beam that is in thine eye.
Matthew 7.2-3

There’s a huge emphasis on times in masters swimming. Recent race times, personal best times, existing record times, and workout interval times all figure prominently in how we view our own swimming and that of our teammates and fellow competitors. It’s because we invariably come from competitive swimming backgrounds where a person was entirely valued by how fast they swam - speed being the be all and end all of the sport. There’s some logic to this attitude but I’m going to argue once we get to masters how fast you swim becomes completely irrelevant. Winning a race where there’s less than half a dozen competitors in your age bracket should render the glory of winning moot. Even the concept of records in masters is highly questionable for several reasons. One of them is the effort which must go into racing at one’s physical best. I’ve done some calculations and, taking maximum VO² as the baseline for performance, you would need to swim a minimum of 12,000 to 15,000 meters a week at 80% of max heart rate or better for five years. And that’s assuming very high quality (and harsh) training – likely it would take averaging well above 20,000 meters a week to accumulate the proper kilometrage if you allow for an average pain threshold. When you’re thirteen you have both the time and incentive (the Olympics and university scholarships spring to mind) to pursue such an effort; but as an adult those incentives have passed and life has other more pressing commitments. One may conceivably train to peak conditioning but for how long? Officially masters swimming goes from age 25 to death; is anybody going to train that hard for fifty or more years? Point one: in masters only a handful of swimmers will be racing at their physical peak in any one year and those who do so won’t sustain the effort beyond a few years. A second argument against recognizing masters records relates to the overall numbers who participate in masters swimming. In any sport the level a country’s elite athletes reach directly correlates to the number of its citizens who participate. A broad participation base provides the statistical probability of uncovering those rare individuals who can compete on an international level and only a small percentage from that small pool become world champions. Given the very low participation rate in masters swimming it can be conclusively said those few who swim masters will not reflect the true potential of the sport. Point two: low participation drastically reduces the probability any existing (and future) record will come close to approaching the maximum performance ceilings for masters swimming. A third, and in my opinion the most powerful argument, is the world’s Olympic elite don’t participate in masters swimming. Yes, there are past Olympic games participants who swim in masters, but they do so for only a short period of time before realizing 1) the effort to regain their past conditioning is doomed from the start which invariably leads to frustration; and 2) there’s no glory to be had in masters. The more successful the athlete the less likely they are to reenter swimming – as a case in point there’s not one world masters record now held by a former world record holder. Point three: the fact the proven elite in the sport eschew Masters reduces masters swimming to a minor league level and therefore ill qualified to set benchmarks in the sport.

FINA, the international swimming body, implicitly recognizes this by referring to masters swimming as ‘age group’ swimming, effectively equating our advanced years with those swimmers disabled by physical infirmities (i.e. swimmers with an age disability). It appears all the national bodies also recognize masters swimming isn’t a proper competitive sport: for example Masters Swimming Canada’s tagline is “Fun, Fitness, Friendship, and Participation”; U.S. Masters Swimming’s tagline is “Swimming for Life”. And this is how it should be. Given the huge disparities between the sport’s participants and the number of variables involved it simply isn’t possible to compare times between two swimmers and come to any rational conclusion. I’ve tried to recognize this by purposefully not using my swimming times in my posts, only to be frustrated on occasion by others who announce my times as a benchmark of their own success or failure, or even as a compliment to me. This, if understandable given the competitive paradigm we all came from, is wrong. I don’t say one’s times are not relevant, but rather they only have personal meaning as a measure of one’s own fitness and progress and nothing more. Perhaps an analogy would explain my position better. After a practice a teammate who also trains with a running club (the same running club, incidentally, as Joe belongs to) regaled us with a story about a fellow runner training for triathlons. My teammate, curious about his swimming ability, asked for his time in the 50 meter free. This was something he didn’t know but the very next run came back and told him he could swim the distance in 55 seconds. “Fifty five seconds”, responded this teammate of mine, “why we have swimmers on our team who can swim more than twice that fast!” The story was received with much amusement in the locker room. Apparently I was the singular exception, for I well know we could take that 0:26+ fifty into a proper swim club and get the very same reaction. The runner was not a competitive swimmer, even less a sprinter, and judging him to his face on such a basis was uncalled for. And this from a swimmer, a good swimmer, who’s quit attending swim meets because of a particularly bad race a couple of years before. We simply have to face the reality we no longer compete on an equal basis and to stop evaluating or comparing ourselves against times others swim. By all means judge yourself, for you know best what you’re both capable of, and more importantly, what you’re seeking from masters swimming. I will say, however, that if someone is looking to recapture or redeem their youth I think their efforts are misplaced. There is no glory in masters swimming - health, camaraderie, and perhaps accomplishment, but no glory. That opportunity past by long ago.

P.S. On a lighter note I came across this video of S6 swimmer Igor Plotnikov setting a new SWAD world record of 0:32.52 in the 50 fly… without arms. After watching this (beyond being impressed to no end and wondering if it hurt when his head hit the end of the pool) I definitely felt the need to spend more time in the pool and work on my kick!


Isis said...

This is a really interesting post, and one I have been looking forward to. THanks for it. It has inspired me to write a "why I swim" post, which I'll do sometime soon, and which I think is the kind of post everyone who participates in any sport should do.

It's nice to have you posting regularly again--I was missing it.

Joe said...

There's still glory to be had. You're a local hero in our club and an inspiration to dozens. That may sound tongue in cheek but I'm serious.