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Thursday, April 30, 2009

The next level

It’s time to take this blog to the next Next Level! Again!

Back when I was a young sprig of 45, I wrote a post about Jamie’s adventures with swimming, with special emphasis on how, after his Terrible Experience in 1998 (the nature of which we still have not learned), he and I set about rebuilding his confidence in the water.  And I tried to describe his swimming style, developed in the course of his aquatic autodidacticism:

he’s developed an idiosyncratic swimming stroke that serves him well.  His arms rarely break the plane of the water; instead, he thrusts them under his chest while frog-kicking.  It’s like watching a human try to imitate a sea lion, as I’ve told him many times.  (His response is usually to rotate and flip in the water like a sea lion.  He’s good at it.) He can move surprisingly fast this way, however ungainly it looks.

Well, this year he finally got some instruction on How to Swim—from his coaches in the local Special Olympics program.  And that requires some explanation, too.

Of course, I’ve told of Jamie’s Special Olympics exploits before—his pair of aces at a volleyball tournament at Villanova, and of course his annual performances in the local State College games every April.  But the volleyball team doesn’t exist anymore.  On Sunday mornings Jamie plays basketball, but last year, he didn’t even want to show up for the statewide games in June (much to the surprise and dismay of his teammates and coaches).  So last fall, we had a talk.  Janet and I looked over the available Special Olympics sports, and we suggested to Jamie that he might consider joining the swimming and golf teams, since he seems to love those things and does well at them.  The problem was that swimming began in January and golf in late April, and I worried that we’d forget to make contact with the relevant coaches when the time came.  I also wasn’t sure if Jamie’s swimming skills were good enough for actual competition, but I decided not to worry about that right away.

Sure enough, in January, when I looked for the contact sheet in the Special Olympics newsletter, it had mysteriously disappeared.  Those of you familiar with the language of coupledom will know that “it mysteriously disappeared” really means “it used to be right here in the wicker basket but I think you threw it out not knowing what it was,” but never mind that.  (I lose quite enough stuff on my own, anyway.  And Janet keeps track of Jamie’s horse-riding appointments, because I can’t take him to those, being insanely allergic to horses.) The point is that Jamie and I missed the first practice at the Penn State natatorium (I thought it was Sundays at 5, but it was Sundays at 6), but that we’ve since managed to make all the other practices—even on April 19, when Jamie and I had to leave the State College High School hockey team’s end-of-year banquet ridiculously early in order to go to the final practice before the big Sectional meet last Sunday.

It turns out that Jamie is a pretty good swimmer by local standards—but the coaches weren’t having any of his idiosyncratic swimming style.  So finally, finally people who know what they’re doing gave Jamie some swimming instruction.  (I can swim, sure, but I swim ugly.) Indeed, they even taught him a proper backstroke, and back on the 19th I was amazed to see that they had him attempting a 25m butterfly as well. 

OK, one more thing before we get to the Next Level on this blog.  Last summer, while Janet was teaching in Ireland, I decided to do Everything In The World around the house.  Jamie and Nick were both with me, and even helped out sometimes.  We cleaned everything and went through everything and put away old pictures and videos and took tons of clothes and playthings to Goodwill and one of us even cleaned the garage and one of us even went through all the old family videotapes and 80s-bands audiotapes and took them to the Digital Conversion Place to have them all converted to DVDs and CDs.  And that’s how we learned that we used our first video camera from 1992 to 1995, our second from 1998 to 2003, and our analog camera until 2004.  After that, it’s all digital photos, some of which have turned up on this very blog.  But we have had no “moving” “pictures” of any kind since Nick graduated from high school, because we never bought a digital “moving” “pictures” device.  Jamie, who’s very invested in what he was like year by year, was mystified that there is no film of him during the years 1996-97 and 2004-, and had a very hard time believing that we simply didn’t take any.  Oh, and one more thing about those films.  When we played back all that stuff, Nick marveled at how much Jamie has grown since we moved to Pennsylvania: “he was a waif,” Nick said upon seeing the wispy 10-year-old, 4-foot-6, 65-pound Jamie on screen contrasted with the 16-1/2-year-old, 5-foot-6, 155-pound mesomorph by his side.  I agreed, but I pointed out that Jamie’s former waifitude is also apparent in the still-photo record.  What really amazed me was the audio part of the video—the squeaky little voices my kids used to have.  It was like hearing Nick and Jamie on helium.

I figured now was as good a time as any for buying a digital “moving” “pictures” device, and so, in preparation for Jamie’s first-ever swim meet, I got one of those Sony things that’s about the size of a pack of cigarettes (oh, all right, a pack of big cigarettes) and spent last Saturday night reading the operating guide.

So here’s what happened this past Sunday, at the Special Olympics Sectionals for central Pennsylvania, held at St. Francis University in Loretto, PA.  In his first heat, Jamie won the 25m freestyle; his qualifying time was 38 point something seconds, and his time in the race was 34 point something.  The first time his coaches timed him, back in February or March, Jamie’s time was 45 seconds.  Now, I understand that these are not world-class performances, and I gather from my last discussion of Special Olympics (and from the CT comment thread) that there are some people out there who think the whole enterprise is necessarily condescending insofar as it involves spectators applauding athletes for not-world-class performances.  (And check out the late-to-the-party comment-thread contributions of one “Augustine” in that first link!  As one of this blog’s regulars once said about such people: hey, 1993 called—it wants its shtick back.) But I have two things to say about this.  One, swimming is really really good for Jamie’s cardiovascular system, and he wouldn’t be swimming as-hard-as-he-possibly-can for any meters if not for Special Olympics.  Two, Jamie understands very well that this is a competition, and that he’s competing not only against other people but against his own previous personal bests.  And three, people who think that the applause at Special Olympics is condescending should go yell at clouds.  Oops, that’s three things.

OK, so here’s the thrilling 50m race.  Keep in mind that until this year, Jamie had never swum 50 consecutive m.

As I call the race, I seem to oscillate between the role of announcer and the role of partisan Jamie fan.  Perhaps it is time for a blogger/camcorder ethics panel.

And how did Jamie do?  A personal best!

Now for the 25m backstroke.  Minutes before the race, I learned that the Special Olympics officials had decided to combine two heats, pitting Jamie against a pair of swimmers with qualifying times 13 and 15 seconds faster than his.  So I decided to offer some between-races commentary, holding the camcorder at arm’s length and hoping to keep myself in the picture frame:

Until this year, Jamie’s “backstroke” consisted of him floating on his back and waving his arms as if he were making a snow angel.  So his form here is a substantial improvement on that—and his push at the 15m mark surprises even me: 

I wasn’t sure if he had won the gold.  A few weeks ago, the coaches were working with the swimmers to make sure they didn’t turn around and abandon the backstroke before finishing the race; Jamie, being new to the real backstroke, kept worrying that he was going to hit the edge of the pool with his head, and had to be convinced that if he simply kept his arms churning properly, his hand would reach the edge of the pool well before his head did.  So that’s why I urged Jamie to keep swimming “straight straight straight” toward the end: I saw him looking for the edge of the pool over his shoulder and was hoping he wouldn’t disqualify himself.

Well, he didn’t!  And so he collected his third gold medal in as many races:

We thought that was the end of his day (hence my “so long” signoff, and Jamie’s “for Channel 14 dot com"), and we had good reason to think that, because the meet schedule had him down for three races: 25m free, 50m free, 25m back.  Only when Jamie had gone to the locker room and changed completely into his street clothes did one of the coaches appear to inform us that Jamie was also scheduled to be the first leg of the 100m relay.  OMG!  A fourth race!  Jamie was pretty tired by this point, and at first he hung his head and refused to change back into his swimsuit.  The coach urged him to come on back out, adding that the entire team would be disqualified if Jamie didn’t swim.  I dutifully noted that there is no I in team, and no J either, but there is an A and an M and an E.  I don’t think that argument carried the day.  All I know is that after only a minute or two of hesitation and attitude-adjusting, Jamie got back into his swimsuit and put on his game face and got himself psyched for yet another heat.

And guess what?  The dang relay team almost broke the two-minute mark, and wound up on that top step of the platform:

Four events, four gold medals.  One new digital camcorder. One moment in time.  And one very happy Special Olympian.

Posted by Michael on 04/30 at 08:30 AM
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