Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Drama and Cost of One Amateur Sport

In the heat of the presidential campaign, what with all the anecdotes and gaffes about hockey moms with lipstick, pitbulls and lipstick on pigs (it all seems so far away now), the Post ran an article about local hockey moms. It did a nice job of profiling the hockey family life - lots of practice and games in frigid temperatures accompanied by lots of travel to out-of-town games, a lifestyle not unfamiliar to any family whose children are involved in any sport. But what was surprising and somewhat shocking to me was the cost. It costs upwards of $10,000 per child per year to play amateur ice hockey. You can just imagine how easily costs can get out of control if you have more than one child in the sport (one family profiled in the article had three children on four travel teams costing $40,000).

I read that article and thanked our stars that our son was into swimming. The most expensive component of his nine-month winter swim-team program costs was his coaching fees. His team swim suit, cap, goggles, flippers and travel costs added up to less than a couple of hundred dollars. Summer league swim team, which operates for about 10 weeks, costs even less.

Or so I thought.

Late this past summer with the league competitions in full swing, as each week passed and as the Divisional Championships and the All-Star races loomed closer and closer, pool decks rumbled with murmurs of team records, league records, All-Star cuts and Aquablades. Aquablade? That was the first I'd heard of it and I heard it from an eight year-old. So I checked with the experts - the team's three 19 year-old coaches. No one can tell if it really helps, they said, but it might do something for C's confidence, especially if everyone else in his event is wearing one.

We did not promise C, who was lobbying for it hard by then, anything, but we said we'd go take a look at it. We did. It was shiny and smooth, with tiny, vertical ribs formed into the material that one would imagine would help the water glide off more easily. It was also close to a hundred dollars. We decided it was time for some carrot and stick therapy. With the Divisionals just a week or so away we came to the understanding that we would get the Aquablade if he made it to the All-Stars.

The entire swim-team experience is fun, but nothing compares to the drama of Divisionals. Divisionals is make-or-break time as far as making it to the All-Star team is concerned. No matter how well or how badly the swimmers perform during the rest of the summer league season, the time achieved at Divisionals is all that counts. During that one Saturday at the end of July, 104 teams across 17 divisions swim their hearts out. Even the youngest ones know where they stand and whether they have a shot at making All-Stars.

During the 2007 season, C and the other kids his age had no clue, but this year, it was night from day. They knew who they had to beat to win their races, they knew to figure out their seedings from the lane positions assigned to them, and the time they needed to get, down to the hundredth of a second, in order to make the cut.

They dipped into the meet sheet frequently, pestered the coach for their swim times, exchanged notes about their races and hung on the fence separating the viewing area from the pool, cheering their team-mates on in the hot sun.

Many Aquablades came out during the Divisionals. One swimmer (still in her early teens but with a better than excellent chance of making it to the US team for the 2012 Olympics) was so careful not to stretch out her Aquablade too much that she changed into it just before her race and promptly changed out of it between the two races each competitor is allowed at Divisionals.

The races across the league end around noon and it takes the rest of the day to rank the swimmers in each age group and event. The swimmers may have won their races but they have no idea how they ranked when compared to the kids in the 103 other teams that also swam that morning. The teams go back to their respective communities and prepare for the banquet later that evening. The noisy, festive evening is for recognizing volunteers, coaches, team reps, most improved swimmers and most valuable swimmers. But the most anticipated highlight of the evening is a phone call towards the end of the banquet. A league official calls each team rep with the list of swimmers in that team that made it to All-Stars.

It's pandemonium after that. A brief silence before each name is announced is followed by whistles and hoots and chants. The kids (and the coaches and parents) revel in the success of hour-long daily practices and drills over the previous 10 weeks, and the weekly races.

It was was particularly exhilarating this year because C made the cut in his favorite event - the butterfly. The next day we kept our promise and hot-footed it to the sports store and got the Aquablade. The next weekend, after another week of daily practices, he swam in his new suit and improved on his previous best time by about 1.4 seconds, which is a huge improvement no doubt, but at Divisionals he had cut down his time by about 0.9 seconds, without the Aquablade.

We lost no time in making sure he did not attribute his improved performance solely to the swim suit. We pointed to the better swimmers in the lanes next to him (he knew he did well when he had a fast swimmer in the lane next to him), we pointed to this steady improvement over the course of the previous winter and the summer, we pointed to his intense preparation in the week leading up to the All-Stars.

Later that summer, we had help from a very credible quarter. Michael Phelps, in one of his TV interviews after the Olympics, credited his success to his training and discipline rather than his new LZR racers.

Last week, however, the issue was brought a tad closer to home from the rarefied world of Olympic-level swimming. The Post carried an article about the new class warfare about to erupt in amateur swimming at the high school and college level:
The futuristic swimsuits worn last summer by nearly every competitor at the Beijing Olympics, most notably Michael Phelps, are generating an aquatic version of class warfare as college and high school swim seasons get underway.

The sleek, long-length suits, which are widely believed to enhance performance although no testing has proven it, can cost more than $500 each and have to be replaced after a few meets. Many collegiate coaches and parents of promising young swimmers don't have the budgets for the suits. But they fear their kids will be hindered without them.
The debate is whether to ban the suits at amateur competitions. The article talks about college and high school sports departments feeling the pressure to buy the $500 suits (which last only for about three races before they have to be replaced because of loss of elasticity) for their swimmers. For us, happily, it is an issue we will not have to deal with for the near future - USA Swimming (the organization that governs the sport nationally) has banned the suit at all of its events for swimmers 12 years old and younger.


Winnowed said...

Sensible decision by USA Swimming

Prats said...

Thank god!! they banned the suit...
I'm sure the competition level will just have to go on...without them....
Congrats on C making it to the All -Stars..

Sujatha Bagal said...

W, let's hope they keep it that way and they do the same for all amateur competitions.

P, thanks.

Choxbox said...

congrats C!