“Coach Mallory, how many more minutes left?”
Deep breaths, I tell myself as I glance at the clock, muster a grin and say, “Streamline off the wall! First person, ready, go!”– strategically allowing myself to avoid the inevitable groans and splashy revenge that would ensue if I disclosed that there are, indeed, 40 minutes left of our hour-long swim practice.
It’s 8:50 on a Monday morning and my t-shirt is already showing hints of sweat stains from the direct morning heat as I’m bracing myself for another long day at the pool. I just finished explaining the specifics we are focusing on for our next lap– big arms and fast feet for freestyle, of course– and Payton #1 is asking me what stroke we’re swimming, Nolan is fully-submerged in Lane Two and Alex is splashing Christopher who is complaining about his goggles being too tight. Erin is begging me to be the next person to go, Payton #2 is gnawing on his goggle strap as he points out his latest injury from the night before, Mia and Zander are seeking out an open space on the wall to avoid being included in the “one hand on the wall!” lecture and Max and Cale are hiding out in the corner of the lane, masterfully avoiding the chaos bubbling around them. Reed, of course, is still waiting to hear just how much longer until he can bundle up in his dry towel.
Among the gaggle of 5- to 7-year-old swimmers stands one or two “helpers”– high school-age volunteer coaches who are either too young to work as coaches or who simply love dedicating their time to assist the new swimmers. Helper Sam speaks from experience when he admits that “helping” is more so a glorified form of crowd control than a true form of coaching; I laugh and agree, but only to an extent.
In my first three years of coaching, I flew solo, forced to stifle my laughter until I could recap the goofy antics my kids managed to conjure up that day in passing to another coach. This year, I have gotten to share the joys of Lane One in real time with Coach Katie and Coach Katlyn– two first-year coaches who have more than their title suggests in experience from their years as devoted Lane One helpers.
If you’re keeping track, yes, the swimmers of Lane One have anywhere from three to six coaches keeping a vigilant watch on them on any given morning. While it often feels like we spend more time dodging splashes as we coax energized kindergarteners into keeping one hand on the wall than we spend teaching the kids proper technique, the helpers and coaches stick around not just to control the crowd, but rather to experience the love and laughter that Lane One provides.
Most swimmers on the Amherst Summer Swim Team begin the season with, at the bare minimum, a general knowledge of the four competitive strokes and a strong enough endurance to get themselves at least halfway across the pool; many Lane One swimmers arrive on the first day with a leech-like resemblance as they cling to their parents’ legs, whaling barely-comprehendible cries of, “I want to go hoooomeee!”
While the coaches and helpers of Lane One spend a considerable portion of the season simply teaching the basics of freestyle and backstroke, the life lessons of Lane One extend far beyond the “Big arms! Fast feet! Heads back! Bellies up!” mantra that we chant at least 15 times a day.
In Lane One, we learn that every day is an occasion worth celebrating.
Some days, a newly missing tooth warrants a five-minute story on how the swimmer’s parents wanted to tie her tooth to a Nerf Gun, so she pulled it out herself to avoid having her tooth become additional ammunition. Other days, we spend the entire practice discussing our favorite birthday memories after discovering how many Lane One swimmers (and coaches!) have birthdays in July. When we’re lucky, we get to rejoice because it has been more than five days since Payton #2 has needed to use Neosporin following an accident-prone escapade. Whether we are inquiring about the Tooth Fairy’s generosity or what they thought of their favorite ride at Cedar Point, as coaches, we never underestimate the power of an excited “No way!” expressed in mock disbelief.
In Lane One, we learn the importance of finding the fun in everything that we do.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of coaching Lane One is creating impromptu games that help reiterate important aspects of each stroke. When none of the swimmers seem to be remembering their streamlines, out comes the Streamline Gate, or two helpers standing side by side with their arms outstretched, only allowing swimmers to pass under the bridge if they streamline through. No matter the weather, we like to Make it Rain– also known as kicking as fast as they can so that all of the splashes coming off their feet create the illusion of rain, hopefully convincing parents to whip out their umbrellas to deflect the splashes. The Catching Game– a personal favorite of mine– requires swimmers to swim with reeeeeeeally long arms and SUPER fast feet in order to catch up to the helper who is walking a foot or so ahead of them. Parents, if you ever overhear me telling your kids to spy on you, don’t fret– we’re just practicing keeping our heads low to the water while we breathe to the side. See? All this time you thought they were just swimming! Lane One’s secrets have been revealed.
In Lane One, we learn to love what we do.
As I stand at the edge of the pool and shout, “Get that belly up!” for the umpteenth time, I often pause to consider how many of these kids will continue on with their swimming careers long after they graduate from Lane One. Will 5-year-old Payton and 7-year-old Alex one day sit next to each other on the bus ride to high school swim practice and reminisce on their days as first-year swimmers, or are their interactions doomed to a mere glance and wave as they pass by on their way to their future practices and rehearsals?
My own high school swim coach once calmed me down after a disappointing race by reminding me that swimming is meant to be fun. Despite the grueling practices– or in Lane One’s case, the days when they can’t seem to remember to streamline off the walls or use their arms when they swim– it’s the little milestones like learning how to dive for the first time and the lifelong friendships that form along the way that make up the happiest memories they will recall long after their swimming careers come to a close.
Although the early practices often force me out of bed sooner than I would like and require me to reiterate “big arms” more than any human ought to, it’s the love I have for the sport that inspires me to grin and play along with the kids’ silliness in hopes of instilling the same passion for swimming in them that my coaches did in me.
At some point in the very near future, I will hang up my towel and enter the real world– the world outside of kick boards, rotary breathing and wet swimmer hugs.
I’ll reluctantly but dutifully hand down my yellow polo to a first-year coach in exchange for a job that frowns upon a daily uniform of a bathing suit and Chacos. I’ll trade in my chlorinated signature scent for freshly-done hair and makeup and I’ll squint when I look in the mirror in hopes of seeing even a glimpse of my once-tanned skin.
No, my future career probably won’t require me to sprint across a pool deck as I track down a distracted swimmer who’s trying fervently to scale the splash pad’s sprinklers, nor will I have to tighten 10 pairs of goggles each morning.
But one day in about a decade or so, I will flip open the newspaper and notice a photo depicting a beaming high school swimmer standing atop the podium at her conference meet.
Coach Mallory and the 2016 Amherst Summer Swim season will be the last thought on her mind as she accepts her medal for the 100-yard backstroke, but maybe– just maybe– the love for swimming she developed back in Lane One will have resonated with her as she remembered to stay on her back for the entirety of her race.
Whether these kids stick with swimming through high school or trade in their caps and goggles for a helmet and cleats, I can only hope they have as much fun as we have together in Lane One; Lane One, you will forever hold a space greater than any “big arm” within my heart.
Just keep swimming.