Last month I attended my first USMS National Championships. My first ‘real’ swimming meet for a long, long time if you consider, like I do, that legitimate competitions must require their entrants to meet minimum qualifying times. Even so the atmosphere was decidedly casual and easy going on the pool deck – clearly there’s no going back to the days of real competition. I’m going to miss that. But it was an enjoyable experience with lots of interesting observations:
– I was very surprised getting off my flight to enter a very large, bright, and modern terminal on my arrival in Portland (Gresham is referred to occasionally as East Portland). Despite being named Portland International Airport I had in my mind’s eye the same sort of small ‘international’ facility as my birth city Victoria, B.C. influenced no doubt because I thought the two cities were roughly comparable in size. Not correct. Metropolitan Victoria has less than half a million souls while metropolitan Portland’s population boasts over two million, ranking it in the top 25 most populous population centers in the United States.
– My second surprise was to be greeted by a modern LRT (light rail transit) system. I immediately canceled my plans to cab it over to my hotel in favor of riding what Portlanders call the MAX. No worse after the experience of disembarking once at the wrong station and a rather long wait for a connecting bus I eventually found my hotel for the grand cost of $4.25 and no carbon emissions. Thereafter, aside from twice using cabs early on because of my unfamiliarity with Portland’s public transit, the rest of the weekend I found my way around the city and back to the airport using buses, MAX, and the pool shuttle.
– The Mt. Hood Community College Aquatic Center had a novel upgrade a couple of years ago when they added a meter of depth by raising a concrete platform some two meters wide around its edges. The extra depth makes for an even faster pool. I was, however, more impressed by the touch pads they employed. Most pools I swim in have somewhat slippery to very slippery walls or, like our club’s Canada Games Pool, walls like rough sandpaper which over time tend to shred the skin off your feet. These pads were perfect – not particularly rough to the touch but providing enough grip to eliminate any chance of slipping.
– In a masters meet of this caliber the announcers play an important role because of the presence of so many varied stories of interest. For one they tell the spectators when there’s a good chance for a world record to be broken. And there were a lot at this year’s championships. At other times they identify swimmers of note such as former distinguished Olympians. One such individual I was pleased to observe was Yoshi Oyakawa, a former world record holder and Olympic gold medalist for the United States at the 1952 Helsinki Games. He set two world records in the 75-79 age group 100 and 50 backstroke events with times of 1:22.78 and 36.54. If only I could be that good when I reach his age. The announcer also let out an historical tidbit by noting for the audience that Yoshi Oyakawa was considered to be the last of the great straight arm backstrokers. That put some historical context into seeing him swim. It also drove home the point that Helsinki was over half a century ago!
– If the Speedo LZR Racer was the singular suit of choice at Beijing then the equally clear favorite at these Long Course Championships was the Blueseventy Nero Comp. It was everywhere. I talked during a social one night to a top ranked 50+ swimmer who purchased the suit just before this competition and he raved about the effect it had on his swimming. But I will say he was a little skeptical about the claims of neutral buoyancy for the suit.
– Those males who didn’t wear a fully body suit tended to be shaved. I was one of the few who appeared on deck still ‘fuzzy’ but this was intentional. Given my recent swimming performances I wanted to make very sure any casual observer was well aware I wasn’t taking myself very seriously.
– The organization of these Championships was absolutely first rate. The only complaint I can make is the BBQ I signed up for ended up putting on my plate a warmed, pre-grilled chicken breast and a charred hot dog with not a drop of BBQ sauce in sight. I was hoping for something resembling ribs, perhaps some version of pork or maybe a little Texas chili. No such luck. Perhaps I was overly optimistic shelling out only $15 for the dinner but no BBQ sauce? Charge $30/plate if necessary but at least barbecue the food.
– I guess I’m about average at estimating peoples’ ages but I do have a really hard time guessing how old masters swimmers in serious training are. For example when I first met Doug, one of our club's best swimmers, I had him pegged at around five years younger than me ... only to find out he was a year older. It was just as difficult at this swim meet, which displayed a relative abundance of bodies approaching those of our elite swimmers. Well close enough. It wasn’t hard to observe the strong correlation between the quality of the individual swimmer and his or her physical appearance. I’m going to have to really work on my core muscles over the next year and get some definition. If I can’t swim fast maybe I can fake it.
– Friday and Saturday were blistering hot 105ºF (over 40ºC) and it was an outdoor pool. I wilted even keeping under the tents which were arrayed around the pool deck. Eventually I went indoors to the warm up pool which I used as a ‘cool down’, and that’s despite the fact the 25 yard pool was allowed to be warmer than typically seen in competitions.
– That wasn’t the case for the main pool which had the chillers going full blast to keep it at a perfect temperature for racing. Many were comparing the overall pool conditions very favorably to last year’s USMS Long Course Championships held at The Woodlands, Texas where apparently the outdoor temperatures were just as hot. It seems the difference at The Woodlands was a broken chiller allowed rather warmer water than desirable. Although I’d have to say considering the number of world records broken in Texas the conditions didn’t seem to slow them down much.
– I signed up for the meet as a member of the Hyack Swim Club, completely forgetting my provincial swimming association tries to collect together all local swimmers going to these out-of-province meets under its banner to allow fielding relay teams. I’ll remember next time. On the other hand I was greeted three times by people who had lived in New Westminster or had some association with the Hyacks. One individual from New Westminster I met was Jill Black, who is now swimming with Oregon Masters. She had been a Hyack until she won a scholarship to a Californian university where she ended up meeting her future husband. For her swimming really did change her life. I'm kicking myself for not finding out her maiden name.
– I had a hard time hanging on to my sunglasses during the meet. I blame the fact that I’ve just started having to use reading glasses and the constant juggling between reading glasses and sunglasses threw me. Not to mention that as a long time resident of the Pacific Northwest I’m not used to wearing sunglasses anyways. On Sunday I left my sunglasses on a table while I was reading the paper waiting for the shuttle bus and had regretfully written them off as lost. Later on, getting out of the pool after my 50 back, I was approached by a man who asked if I swam for the Hyacks. When I answered in the affirmative he handed me my missing sunglasses. To him and the citizens of Portland my sincere thanks once again.
– Standing in the shower at meet’s end the fellow next to me, apparently knowing my age group, complained about swimming at last year’s long course championships at The Woodlands as a 45 – 49 year old where the competition was brutal (and it was – almost all the world’s top ranked swimmers in my age group showed up for that meet). This year in Gresham virtually no one showed up and he was moaning the fact he had placed sixth in the 50 free as a 50 – 54 year old with a time that would have placed him fourth if he could have swum with us younger guys. I guess that’s the problem about masters competitions for us Type-A competitive folk: there’s no single competition you can go to where you’ll be guaranteed to find all the top swimmers gathered together. So you get a national championship which really isn’t a national championship and a gold medal’s true worth varies wildly depending on the level of competition which happens to show up. The real competition is on paper in FINA’s Top 10 lists.
Next year the long course championships will be held at Indianapolis, Indiana at the famous Indiana University Natatorium. That should be another interesting experience.