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Commentary: Lessons Learned at the Pool

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

This winter marks the final swim season for my Maren as a member of the YMCA of McDonough County Dolphins.  She was just five when she started swimming and qualified for the state meet in her very first season.  Over the years we have driven hundreds of miles to YMCAs all over Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.  Maren has logged thousands of hours in the pool and along the way she has gathered lots of swim related t-shirts, caps, goggles, swimsuits, friends, and some invaluable life lessons.  

As a swim parent, I have mixed feelings about the closing of this chapter.  On the one hand, I will miss the alone time we have spent in the car, as we travel through all types of winter weather on our way to this meet or that. 

On the other hand, I would be lying if I professed to enjoy being up at o’dark-thirty on Saturday mornings from November through March.  What I will do with my newly rediscovered free-time I am not yet sure.  But I think that sleeping in a bit will be part of it. 

Over the last twelve years swimming has taught us both a lot of lessons.  And I would like to leave you with my top three.  

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

One - Swimming is a reflection of our society. 

Chris DeSantis writes that “swimming is a sport of privilege in the United States,” and I have to agree with him.  Although the coaches make quite a modest living for the work they do (they are teachers after all), swim meets are representative of the socio-economic and ethnic stratification found in our society.  In the pool and the stands, there are few people of color.  Swimming has been and continues to be an upper-middle class, white sport. 

In a recent article in The Conversation,  Canadian academic Jacqueline Scott posits that “African Americans’ antipathy towards swimming is rooted in segregation and racism.  [After all, it wasn’t that] long ago that public beaches and pools in the United States displayed ‘Whites Only’ signs.” 

Today’s racism and segregation is more subtle. Most white children learn to swim in backyard pools or at members-only clubs. Black children often deal with poorly maintained and over-crowded public pools if pools exist at all, so the possibility of being introduced to a sport you can enjoy your entire life, is limited from the start.  Thus sports continue to be a reflection of our society.  

Two - Be there mentally and physically every day. 

It sounds cliche, but in swimming and life in general, showing up and putting in the work contributes a lot to success.  During the height of the season Maren is up and in the pool at 5:15 in the morning.  Then she goes to school, and is back in the pool in the afternoon after school.  Her time management skills are pretty stellar as she completes her homework on time, keeps track of college application deadlines, and works hard on tasks she may not enjoy, whether they are the butterfly or math.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a fair amount of whining and complaining, but she sticks with it. 

One of my favorite quotes I often see at swim meets is “Keep showing up when most people quit.”  I think this is spot on both in and out of the pool.   

Three - Sportsmanship. 

One of my favorite times during swim meets are the moments just after a race has ended.  Swimmers have given it their all and are looking eagerly at the time clock.  The looks on their faces translate into “Did I out-touch her or did she beat me?”  And then their faces change.  Some are happy and some sad.  Moments later, arms are extended and handshakes and hugs are exchanged over lane lines as all the swimmers, whether they win or lose, congratulate each other.  Life outside of the pool is full of wins and losses.  Learning to deal gracefully and humbly with both is probably one of swimming’s most valuable lessons. 

As this season of swimming wraps up I am not sure what the future holds for my swimmer.  But I do know that these last twelve years of swim lessons have prepared her well for whatever life sends her way.   

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.