PUMPING IRONY: Swimming Upstream

I’ve been comparing notes recently with Hodding Carter, the 45-year-old writer whose new book, Off the Deep End, chronicles his manic pursuit of a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic swimming team. Carter, who 20 years earlier won Division III All-America honors for his alma mater, Kenyon College, uses his pursuit of Olympic glory as… Read more »

I’ve been comparing notes recently with Hodding Carter, the 45-year-old writer whose new book, Off the Deep End, chronicles his manic pursuit of a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic swimming team.

Carter, who 20 years earlier won Division III All-America honors for his alma mater, Kenyon College, uses his pursuit of Olympic glory as a vehicle to escape a nasty mid-life crisis.
It’s an insightful and often hilarious read, and it contains some lessons for geezers who turn to exercise as a way to relive/revive their former athletic prowess.

Primary among these lessons would be the following:

Don’t blow up your marriage while you’re trying to rebuild your body/self-esteem. Carter has no sense of balance — he’s all about full-on training and he treats his wife and three kids like they’re obstacles between himself and his fitness goals. This is not a good idea.
Don’t live in the past. In his obsessive drive to cut his time in the 50 freestyle by two seconds, he actually goes back to Kenyon and lives in the dorm and trains with his old coach. Not surprisingly, he finds he doesn’t fit in very well.

Don’t assume that just because you’re trying harder, your performance will improve. On multiple occasions in his quest, Carter clearly is overtraining — and it shows. In one classic anecdote, he arrives at a regional masters swimming meet feeling better than he’s felt in years, and finishes last to a bunch of guys even older then he is.

The good news is that Carter eventually gets it — not the spot on the Olympic team (the trials are looming as the book ends), but the real reason why he began his quest. At one point, he’s offered the job of coaching young swimmers at his local YMCA. He takes the gig because he figures it will give him more pool time (and he really needs the money), then gradually realizes that maybe he’s found a niche that allows him to embrace swimming in his middle years.
All three of his kids are swimmers suddenly under his clumsy wing, but he finds that their interest in the sport mirrors his own. And maybe that’s enough.

At the state meet, he writes how his youngest, Eliza, beams after swimming her fastest time. “[It] . . . made me realize the weekend wasn’t only about the drudgery and unending chaos. I’d been enjoying the days’ races but Eliza’s happiness made everything complete. I felt blessed to have three of my own kids deriving joy from the same sport that had been, and still was, such a large part of my life.”

It’s a sweet moment in an often cynical chronicle, and it reminds me that my own fitness quest could actually use a goal or two (I know, I know. . . You told me so.), but I refuse to pretend that I’m going to suddenly get back out on the asphalt and go one-on-one with some twentysomething who would break my ankles with his first killer crossover.

I’d love to be able to play hoops again, but I have no interest in reconstructive surgery.
What Carter learned throughout his quest, and I what I ought to someday admit, is that a little guidance isn’t a bad thing. He sought out coaches and like-minded athletes; it probably wouldn’t hurt me to do the same.

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